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Scientist tracks where consciousness comes from

Claustrum neurons
A digital 3-D reconstruction shows a handful of neurons that wrap around a mouse’s brain and are connected to a sheet of brain cells known as the claustrum. (Allen Institute for Brain Science)

SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, neuroscientist Christof Koch has been searching for the seat of consciousness — a quest that has taken him deep within the brains of mice, and to the doorstep of the Dalai Lama.

Now the president and chief scientific officer of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is closing in on a big part of the answer in a small part of the brain.

The part in question is known as the claustrum, a thin, irregular sheet of neurons that’s found in each hemisphere of the brain, underneath the cortex.

Koch and the late biologist Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, took note of the claustrum more than a decade ago — but it’s taken that long for experimental techniques to progress to the point where neuroscientists can literally shed light on how the claustrum and its network of connected neurons work.

“It connects to every point of the cortex, bidirectionally,” Koch said Oct. 27 at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco. “Crick and I hypothesized that the function of the claustrum is to do something like consciousness. In a sense, it acts like the conductor of the cortical symphony.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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