In an effort to explore the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, Stanford University nueroscientist Bill Newsome is currently seeking regulatory approval to implant an electrode into his own brain. Engadget has a summary of an interview MIT Technology Review did recently with Newsome in which he explains his obsession with determining how brain functions give rise to consciousness and why the limitations of studying animals have driven him to propose this extraordinary experiment.
Neuroscientists have made tremendous advances in recent years towards understanding how neural signals are processed in the brain. They have identified and can monitor and study structures involved in visual and auditory processing, language comprehension, memory formation, and learning. While there is still much to be discovered about this relatively basic processing, almost nothing at all is understood about how these brain functions give rise to consciousness, one’s self awareness and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and one’s environment.
For two decades Bill Newsome has studied how sensory input is encoded and acted upon by the brain. His research included the study of motion perception in monkeys who were trained to follow a moving pattern of dots. While the experiments offered a wealth of insight into how sensory information is encoded, processed and ultimately acted upon in an intelligent way, Newsome still wanted to bridge the gap to consciousness. As he told the Review, “If we understand the system completely (from input to output) at a cellular level, but still do not know exactly what causes conscious mental phenomena, we will have failed.”
This led to a new variation of the experiment during which he stimulated an area of the visual cortex known to play a role in motion perception, the visual area V5, or as it is often called, MT. Cellular structures were previously identified that were active when the dots were moving to the left and those that fired when the pattern moved right. By applying an electric current to the different cell groupings in MT, he could tell by the monkey’s reaction that he was influencing what it was seeing. The question was, and remains, how was the monkey’s conscious altered by the artificial stimulation of the MT?
According to Newsome the only way to answer this is by testing a human, and he feels there is no better test subject than himself. He says to the interviewer, “If I could stimulate my MT, then, presumably I would know and could say whether I really see the [actual] dots moving [as in the monkey experiments] or something else altogether.”
Newsome appears realistic about the conclusions he will be able to draw from the initial experiments. He will not necessarily gain a better understanding of the mechanism of consciousness, but at least he will be able to report on his experiences in a way that the monkey’s never will.
Additionally, he is not even sure his proposal will clear the regulatory hurdles. Testing on humans in the US is only done under strict oversight, and not done at all if it is determined animal testing would suffice. While he is prepared to be his own guinea pig, or monkey as the case may be, he is uncomfortable being a pioneer in an area that could lead others to physical harm.
I will qualify my following opinion by saying that I honestly am not familiar with Newsome’s proposal beyond his words in this interview. That said, his failure to impress upon me any feeling of confidence that the work would offer groundbreaking revelations coupled with his own recognition that it could be dangerous in addition to being being morally questionable leave me wondering if it has a shot at all of being approved. Of course as one reader over at Engadget summed it up, “Real mad-scientists don’t ask for permission.”
Read the full interview of Bill Newsome by MIT Technology Review: “Big Brain Thinking.”