May 4, 2021

Study reveals the gateway to conscious awareness

Research led by Zirui Huang, Ph.D., and Anthony Hudetz, Ph.D., finds out how some sensory information breaks through to conscious experience.

During our waking hours, the brain is receiving a near-constant influx of sensory signals of various strengths.

For decades, scientists have wondered why some signals rise to the light of conscious awareness while other signals of a similar strength remain in the dark shadows of unconsciousness. What controls the gate that separates the shadows and the light?

In a new study from the Department of Anesthesiology and Center for Consciousness Science at Michigan Medicine, researchers identify a key area in the cortex that appears to be the gate of conscious awareness.

“Information processing in the brain has two dimensions: sensory processing of the environment without awareness and the type that occurs when a stimulus reaches a certain level of importance and enters conscious awareness,” explains Zirui Huang, Ph.D., research investigator in the Department of Anesthesiology.

Huang, along with lead researcher Anthony Hudetz, Ph.D., and their team, attempted to confirm that this switch occurs in a part of the brain called the anterior insular cortex, acting as a type of gate between low level sensory information and higher level awareness.