But why does consciousness fade during deep sleep early in the night? "You cannot say that consciousness fades because the brain shuts off. That's not the case. Scientists have long known that the brain remains active while we sleep," Tononi says. "So what could be responsible?"
To explore the breakdown of consciousness during sleep, Tononi and his colleagues capitalized on a new technology - transcranial magnetic stimulation - that permits precise, non-invasive activation of small regions of the brain. Subjects are also equipped with a cap of electrodes to monitor the brain's electrical activity so that the cell signals elicited by the quick bursts of electricity can be tracked.
In subjects who are awake, the pulses elicited a significant response: "The brain reacts in a strong and specific manner," Tononi explains. "There is a very interesting set of activations that occur over great distances in the cortex.
"During deep sleep early in the night," he adds, "the response is short-lived and doesn't propagate at all. Somehow, it doesn't travel anywhere."
The experiments conducted by the Wisconsin team are the first of their kind. The results lend support to the idea that consciousness depends on the ability of the brain to integrate information. In other words, consciousness rests on the ability of the various regions of the brain to talk to one another.
In the brain, messages are relayed along networks of nerve fibers. Cells transmit information along those fibers electrochemically. Anatomically, the fibers are analogous to the cables that computers use to share information. But the network of nerve fibers, like a tangle of computer c
Source:University of Wisconsin-Madison