Medical Research

Duke University

FanWang, Kafui Dzirasa
Durham, NC
June 2016

Consciousness is a reversible brain state characterized by awareness and perception of one’s environment and self.  Despite centuries of studies in neuroscience and medicine, the exact neural pathways and processes that reversibly switch the brain between conscious and unconscious states remain largely unknown.  To begin to solve this long-standing puzzle, two Duke University investigators plan to examine the neural mechanisms whereby general anesthesia suppresses consciousness.  Supported by preliminary results, the team hypothesizes that specific populations of anesthesia-activated neurons (AANs) are necessary and sufficient to initiate and maintain the unconscious brain state.  The investigators plan to identify and manipulate AANs using a highly innovative technology recently developed in their laboratories, which allows them to specifically control the activity of AANs.  These manipulations will be combined with large-scale multisite in vivo electrical recordings simultaneously from the output targets of AANs and from other cortical and sub-cortical regions.  This will enable the analysis of the precise sequences of causal events that trigger the brain to transition between conscious and unconscious states.  Finally, the investigators will use closed-loop optogenetic manipulations to instill putative conscious activity patterns into selected AAN targets to override the effects of anesthesia.  Together, these studies are expected to unlock the neural gate to consciousness.

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