Whether it is mechanical (trauma), chemical (anaesthesia) or electrical - which part of the brain is shut down to cause loss of consciousness?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure but I think it is reticular formation. $\endgroup$
    – biogirl
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very tricky question, since it is difficult to measure consciousness. $\endgroup$
    – Memming
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ Related: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/10351/… $\endgroup$
    – Amory
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with biochick, it's reticular formation The reticular formation has projections to the thalamus and cerebral cortex that allow it to exert some control over which sensory signals reach the cerebrum and come to our conscious attention. It plays a central role in states of consciousness like alertness and sleep. Injury to the reticular formation can result in irreversible coma. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticular_formation#Functions BUt again I guess there are a lot of other control mechanisms in the brain on the cellular and bigger levels. $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ It depends on what you call consciousness. Is consciousness without emotion still consciousness? Emotion is described as a Mammalian "apomorphy" located in the cerebral cortex (see e.g. Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden). That may be part of the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 5:08

3 Answers 3


There is no widely-accepted neurological structure that mediates 'consciousness.' Even if some structures have been shown to be necessary for consciousness, they have not been shown to be sufficient. This is true with anesthetic mechanisms as well -- their ability to paralyze and block pain signals is fairly well-understood, but the mechanism of loss-of-consciousness is still unknown.

Still, 'consciousness' has to be there, somewhere between being awake and being dead, states which anesthetics can readily bridge (review):

Nevertheless, at some level of anesthesia between behavioral unresponsiveness and the induction of a flat EEG [indicating the cessation of the brain’s electrical activity, one of the criteria for brain death (22)], consciousness must vanish.

Later in the same review:

The evidence from anesthesia and sleep states (Fig. 2–3) converges to suggest that loss of consciousness is associated with a breakdown of cortical connectivity and thus of integration, or with a collapse of the repertoire of cortical activity patterns and thus of information (Fig. 2). Why should this be the case? A recent theory suggests a principled reason: information and integration may be the very essence of consciousness (52).

This is consistent with my own take. Consciousness itself is the subjective experience of 'brain,' so it can't be lost, just poorly integrated.

  • $\begingroup$ @Rayan, very useful reference (Consciousness and Anesthesia). Thanks $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ "somewhere between being awake and being dead". I think that the gap between the 'dream' and the 'sleep without dreams' is narrower, so the study of sleep and dreams may be closer to the answer than the use of anesthetics. $\endgroup$
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 5:06

Consciousness is a difficult term to grasp in a short answer, and the question is as interesting as it is challenging. The reticular formation as mentioned by others before me is crucial, as the thalamus is the gateway of information to and from the brain. Therefore, subcortical structures such as the thalamus, when 'shut down', induce unconsciousness. Mircea Steriade (2005) has an excellent review on this and he is a leader in the field the field of sleep and absence epilepsy, thalamo-cortical interactions and consciousness. He describes there the cortical responses seen in the EEG during sleep: the sleep spindles, or related spike-and-wave discharges (SWDs) seen in the EEG during absence epileptic seizures, where patients temporarily loose consciousness. Sleep spindles and SWDs are highly synchronized responses that basically block out sensory input and cortical output. The blocking of sensory input and blocking of output to the body may be regarded as a loss of consciousness, as one is not able to sense the environment or undertake action in response to environmental stimuli (e.g., Kostopoulus (2000)).

However, since the question is what part of the brain needs to shut down, it is technically the neocortex, as the neocortex holds the key to being aware of one's surroundings, i.e., processing of sensory input as well as driving motor neurons to move, talk and respond to stimuli (see wiki page on neocortex). So the end organ mainly associated with consciousness is the neocortex - as described in a review paper by Nobel laureate sir Francis Crick (1990). The authors also indicate the thalamus and other structures as possible sites involved, but principally it is the neocortex. I hope this helps you a bit further.

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    $\begingroup$ It would be great if yo added some references to support your response! As it stands this is more similar to a comment! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Bez, I am a newbie in Stack Exchange. I will try to improve my answers! $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ Hello new Chris and welcome to the Biology StackExchange. Yes, that would be fantastic! It simply requires some references added, which are supportive of the response :) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ I hope my edits help and please excuse me for my inexperience. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 1:57

Two structures are required for consciousness: the brain stem reticular activating system (RAS) and one cerebral hemisphere, as stated here. e.g. a lesion in the RAS or bicerebral injury will induce loss of consciousness.

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    $\begingroup$ Some references would be nice. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ As mentioned by @Chros (The old Chris that is :) ), this response requires references! As it stands, this is more similar to a comment! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:57

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