The new findings came from a serendipitous observation in a patient who was in a deep coma and receiving powerful epilepsy medication required to control his convulsions. EEG recordings of his brain's electrical activity showed peculiar and unexplainable waveforms, the researchers said. (10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain)
Using anesthetic drugs, the researchers recreated the patient's state in cats. When the cats reached the flat-line coma stage, the researchers increased the anesthetic's dose, and observed brain activity re-emerging in cats.
It is still unclear how the activity in neurons in the hippocampus can spread throughout the brain, the researcher said. One possible scenario is that silencing the brain even more may ease the control over neurons in the hippocampus that other brain areas normally maintain.
"The more the brain is unconscious, the less this activity is disturbed," Amzica said. The activity in the hippocampus then has more potential to become strong enough to spread into other areas, he said.
The findings may have therapeutic potential, the researchers said. Sometimes a coma is induced in patients who are at high risk of brain injury from incidents such as physical trauma, drug overdose or life-threatening seizures. By reducing the activity in the brain and slowing its metabolism, an induced coma can help protect the neural tissue.
However, it's plausible that long periods of complete inactivity could result in loss of connections between neurons. A coma state such as the one discovered in the new experiments may better protect neural tissue, as it maintains some minimum activity throughout the brain, the researchers said.
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