To define human consciousness at the neuronal level is among the most difficult of tasks for neuroscience. Still, researchers have made inroads, most recently by sinking electrodes deep with the brains of epilepsy patients and recording the activity of single neurons as the awake patients described whether they observed an image flashed before them.
Previous work had found that the stronger the individual neuron activity, the more likely it is to be associated with conscious perception. In this latest study, published…in Current Biology, researchers from the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany find a second factor—timing—that appears important to the brain’s conscious awareness.
Cumulatively, the team recorded from 2,735 neurons and directly compared the neuronal activity between times when the subjects reported seeing the image and when they didn’t. The researchers were able to differentiate the cellular activity representing conscious and unconscious perception of the visual stimuli.
Although single-neuron activity is important to understand, [neurobiologist Rafael] Malach also emphasizes the importance of the network of neurons acting as a single unit. Mormann and his team are now probing what exactly determines whether something is consciously perceived and how interfering with the neuronal networks could change conscious perception.
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