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How Electrical Stimulation Aids in Consciousness Research

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Digitimer supporting consciousness research with electrical stimulation aids.

Photo Source: Pexels

Consciousness is often referred to as the mind’s subjective experience. It’s closely linked to deeper cognitive processes like reflection, perception, communication, and thought. It’s only fairly recently, in the 1990s, that research and investigation on consciousness really took off. This was largely due to the increasing availability of brain-scanning technologies, including electroencephalography (EEG), which detects electrical impulses in the brain.

Electrical Stimulation in Consciousness Research

A recent study by a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison aimed to investigate which indicators are best for conveying consciousness. Additionally, the

UW-Madison researchers identified the parts of the brain that are key to the conscious

mind — this may help people in comas and many other scientists who are struggling to come up with effective treatments. The team was able to find a better way to measure consciousness after recording electrical activity in a thousand neurons throughout different parts of the brain of a pair of monkeys. The primates were monitored during different states of consciousness: under drug-induced anesthesia, during light sleep, resting wakefulness, and after being roused from anesthesia through electrical stimulation of a spot deep in the brain. After thorough observation, the researchers were able to put together all the signs associated with consciousness. These signs include the speed of brain rhythms in different brain regions, the complexity of signals being transmitted, and how these signals interact with each other in different areas. Furthermore, the authors of the study suggest that the back of the head, instead of the forehead, is a more ideal place for electrodes, as the back of the brain and the deep brain areas are more predictive of the state of consciousness. While both low- and high-frequency activity can be seen in unconscious states, it’s the frequencies’ complexity that indicates a waking mind. "You need more complexity to convey more information, which is why it's related to consciousness. If you have less complexity across these important brain areas, they can't convey very much information. You're looking at an unconscious brain,” says Michelle Redinbaugh, a co-lead author of the study.

Implications on Treatment

The possible outcome of the findings could improve therapeutic techniques for people with consciousness problems. In fact, knowing how and where to optimize electrical patterns could be the foundation for precise brain stimulation for people in comas or those with brain injuries, dementia, and other similar conditions. This could help maintain a continuous level of consciousness. Electrical stimulation currently holds great therapeutic potential, but there’s still more research and clinical trials to be done ideally on humans next, after the success of the study on monkeys. A clinical trial would include an intensive observation period involving an eclectic team of researchers and healthcare professionals – from biomedical researchers and physiatrists, to neurologic specialists and research nurses, among others. In human clinical tests, it’s critical to get a skilled care team onboard to ensure the safety of the subjects. However, the shortage of skilled professionals in research, particularly when it comes to nurses, could be an impediment for further studies. Nurses would need to take

RN to BSN programs to advance their practice. Fortunately, these programs are now available purely online, allowing nursing professionals to keep practicing as they earn their research nursing certifications. Through these programs, nurses are trained not only to give primary care to patients and test subjects, but also to organize research data and identify suitable trial conditions and subjects. Accredited institutions provide the courses, so they’re just as valid and effective as traditional degrees. There’s a need for specialized professionals especially as electrical stimulation and consciousness is a relatively new section in the field of health and research. That being said, there are tons of ongoing product developments that electrical stimulation devices need to undergo. On top of that, certifications and regulations are ever-changing in this evolving field. This is why labs and researchers need to source reliable and high quality medical devices and scientific instruments. This ensures the safety of their subjects and also guarantees optimal accuracy. When used strategically, electrical stimulation could be a great non-invasive and non-pharmacologic treatment option for complicated consciousness problems.

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By: Roanna Julianne


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