Understanding the mechanisms for consciousness is arguably one of the most intriguing questions of modern neuroscience. Why are some visual stimuli consciously perceived, whereas others remain subliminal? What is the relation between conscious perception, attention and working memory?

Thanks to a prestigious grant from the European Commission, Professor Pieter Roelfsema of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience can start the project NUMEROUS (NeUronal MEchanisms foR consciOUS perception), in which he will investigate which mechanisms in our brain are responsible for conscious perception.

Conscious and unconscious stimuli

In 2018, Roelfsema and his colleagues discovered that we consciously perceive weak but simple stimuli once they elicit a minimal level of activity in the frontal cortex of the brain. For these simple stimuli, the visual cortex acts as a relay station that needs to pass the information to higher cortical areas. Conscious perception of more complex visual images appears to rely on a more sustained interaction between visual cortex and associative brain regions.

Individual cells

With the ERC Advanced grant, Roelfsema will investigate the mechanisms for conscious perception of both simple and more complex visual images in the brain. Something that has not been done until now. “Among other things, we will measure the activity of single neurons in human patients who are implanted with electrodes as part of their treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy”, Roelfsema says. “We will also use new methods to investigate to investigate the brain regions in monkeys in which activity does or does not readily lead to a reportable experience.”

The proposed combination of experiments will provide unprecedented insight into how sensory stimuli give rise to conscious perception.

European Research Council

The European Research Council (ERC) strengthens ground breaking scientific research within Europe. The ERC does this by supporting the very best scientists with grants for fundamental research. The Advanced Grant helps established researchers to carry out their pioneering, high-risk research.

Source: Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN)