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Scientists explore consciousness
Date:2/18/2008

pportunity to perform experiments and study how neurons in the human brain respond to different perceptual and behavioural tasks.

In this particular study we showed pictures in a computer screen very briefly, at the threshold of conscious recognition. Subjects had to report whether they recognized or not the particular picture showed in each trial. The key point is that, since the pictures are shown very briefly, for exactly the same visual input sometimes the subjects reported recognizing the picture and sometimes not recognizing it. Then we could ask whether the neurons fire according to the subjects' conscious perception or the actual visual inputs.

We found that the neurons we recorded responded to the conscious perception in an "all-or-none" way by dramatically changing their firing rate only when the pictures were recognized.

For example, a neuron in the hippocampus of one patient fired very strongly to a picture of the patient's brother when recognized and remained completely silent when it was not, another neuron behaved in the same manner with pictures of the World Trade Centre, etc.

Interestingly, based on the firing of these neurons it was possible to predict far above chance whether a picture was recognized or not. Another interesting observation is that a picture flashed very briefly generated nearly the same response -if recognized- as when shown for much longer periods of time. This means that a single snapshot as brief as 33 ms was sufficient to trigger strong neuronal responses far outlasting the stimulus presentation, signaling the conscious perception of the picture shown.

Dr Quian Quiroga said the study had important implications. Potential applications of this discovery include the development of Neural Prosthetic devices to be used by paralysed patients or amputees. A patient with a lesion in the spinal cord (as with the late Christopher Reeves), can still think about reaching a cup of tea with
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Contact: Rodrigo Quian Quiroga
rqqg1@le.ac.uk
01-162-522-314
University of Leicester
Source:Eurekalert

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