JHU: A man who can't see numbers provides new insight into awareness

June 22, 2020

By studying an individual with an extremely rare brain anomaly that prevents him from seeing certain numbers, Johns Hopkins University researchers provided new evidence that a robust brain response to something like a face or a word does not mean a person is aware of it.

The work, set to be published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows humans can have extensive brain processing without any awareness.

Researchers studied a man they refer to as RFS, who was diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease that led to extensive atrophy in the cortex and basal ganglia. In addition to more typical symptoms of memory trouble and muscle spasms, he could no longer see the digits 2 through 9 normally. When shown a digit, he only saw a scramble of lines that he described as 'spaghetti' and he had no idea which digit he was looking at. His vision was otherwise normal--for example, he could identify letters and other symbols.

The puzzle for the research team was that for such a selective deficit to be possible, RFS's brain had to be identifying the digits in order for the severe problems to occur just for digits and nothing else.

"When he looks at a digit, his brain has to 'see' that it is a digit before he can not see it -- it's a real paradox," said senior author, cognitive scientist Michael McCloskey. "In this paper what we did was to try to investigate what processing went on outside his awareness."

The researchers found that RFS also couldn't see anything placed near or atop a digit. When he was shown a large 3 with a picture of a violin drawn onto it, he couldn't see the violin. If the picture was far enough away from the number, he could see it normally.

To probe the brain activity happening when RFS was presented with critical stimuli, the team, led by co-first authors Teresa Schubert, a former Johns Hopkins graduate student who is now at Harvard University, and David Rothlein, a former Johns Hopkins graduate student who is now at the VA Boston Healthcare System, performed experiments using electroencephalography (EEG).

Brain waves were recorded while RFS looked at a number with a face embedded on it. The recordings showed that his brain detected the presence of a face, even though he was completely unaware of it. In fact his brain response was the same as when he was shown a face that he could see clearly.

"These results show that RFS's brain is performing complex processing in the absence of awareness," Rothlein said. "His brain detected the faces in the digits without his having any awareness of them."

A second EEG experiment involving words embedded on numbers showed that RFS's brain was recognizing the words even though he was completely unaware of them.

"He was completely unaware that a word was there, yet his brain was not only detecting the presence of a word, but identifying which particular word it was, such as 'tuba'," Schubert said.

It's commonly assumed that visual awareness goes hand-in-hand with this level of neural activity, but the team's results suggest the additional neural processing is required for awareness--and it is this additional processing that is impaired in RFS. The complex processing required to detect and identify faces, words, and other visual stimuli is not sufficient for awareness if the additional processing does not follow.
Authors included: Trevor Brothers, Emily Coderre, Kerry Ledoux and Barry Gordon from the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurology.

Johns Hopkins University

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.