Consciousness depends on integration between parietal cortex, striatum, and thalamus

Cell Syst. 2021 Apr 21;12(4):363-373.e11. doi: 10.1016/j.cels.2021.02.003. Epub 2021 Mar 16.


The neural substrates of consciousness remain elusive. Competing theories that attempt to explain consciousness disagree on the contribution of frontal versus posterior cortex and omit subcortical influences. This lack of understanding impedes the ability to monitor consciousness, which can lead to adverse clinical consequences. To test substrates and measures of consciousness, we recorded simultaneously from frontal cortex, parietal cortex, and subcortical structures, the striatum and thalamus, in awake, sleeping, and anesthetized macaques. We manipulated consciousness on a finer scale using thalamic stimulation, rousing macaques from continuously administered anesthesia. Our results show that, unlike measures targeting complexity, a measure additionally capturing neural integration (Φ) robustly correlated with changes in consciousness. Machine learning approaches show parietal cortex, striatum, and thalamus contributed more than frontal cortex to decoding differences in consciousness. These findings highlight the importance of integration between parietal and subcortical structures and challenge a key role for frontal cortex in consciousness.

Keywords: anesthesia; basal ganglia; central thalamus; complexity; consciousness; frontal cortex; integration; phi; posterior parietal cortex; sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Thalamus / physiology*