Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science


Consciousness science in practice

Even in the late 20th century, consciousness was considered by many to be beyond the reach of science. Now, understanding the neural mechanisms underlying consciousness is recognized as a key objective for 21st century science. Powerful new combinations of functional brain imaging, computational modelling and basic neurobiology bring real hope that human ingenuity can resolve this central mystery of our existence. Practically, an enhanced understanding of consciousness will transform clinical approaches to a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, from coma to insomnia, from depression and schizophrenia to autism, dementia and Tourette syndrome. Founded in 2010 with a generous donation from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science pursues a powerful multidisciplinary approach to clinical intervention and diagnosis, based on the science of the complex brain networks that give rise to consciousness.  A recent summary of our activities can be downloaded here.

Our Research

Our research follows two interacting strands; one in basic science, and the other in clinical application, ultimately focused on developing new innovative treatments. Advances in basic science have the potential to translate into new clinical approaches, and clinical studies can shape the development of novel testable theories and computational models of basic brain mechanisms underlying consciousness.

The basic science strand seeks to unravel the complex brain mechanisms that generate consciousness. Most current approaches focus on identifying so-called ‘neural correlates of consciousness’, for example, how brain activity changes when a stimulus is experienced or not. Our research moves beyond correlation to develop new theories and models of neural mechanisms that actually account for fundamental properties of consciousness; for example the property that conscious experiences provide integrated representations of very large amounts of information. New theory guides and is guided by computational modelling of the corresponding brain mechanisms; synthetic computational modelling is needed because standard reductionist approaches struggle when confronted by the complex networks of the brain. Theoretical, modelling, and experimental approaches mutually inform and constrain one another, and interact with data and insights from the clinical strand.  Our overall approach is captured by the concept of the real problem of consciousness: how to account for phenomenological properties of conscious experience, without pretending consciousness doesn't exist and without worrying too much about its presence in the universe in the first place.

The clinical application strand translates insights about the mechanisms of consciousness to the clinical domain, while simultaneously feeding-back experimental data to stimulate developments in the basic science. Work in this strand focuses on neuropsychiatry as well as on brain-injured patients with neurological deficits. In addition to its evident clinical importance, psychiatric neuroscience has considerable potential for informing scientific approaches to consciousness. The disturbances of conscious mental life that occur in psychiatric disorders involve radical and disabling shifts in the contents and quality of conscious experience, for example profound changes in emotional state or specific experiential phenomena such as auditory hallucinations.  Characterizing the neural processes involved in these disorders help us to understand their operation in healthy individuals, lighting the way to novel clinical interventions. Similarly, analysis of brain-injured patients provides unique access to informative dissociations of conscious experience; for example, ‘vegetative state’ patients show high levels of arousal apparently without any accompanying awareness. 

For more about our current research, see the Sackler Centre research pages.  You might also want to check out Co-Director Anil Seth's essay for on 'the real problem', as well as his appearance on Radio 4's The Life Scientific.  Seth is also Editor-in Chief of the academic journal Neuroscience of Consciousness (Oxford University Press).

Our Facilities

The Sackler Centre makes use of a wide range of dedicated and shared facilities for its research.  We have access to functional MRI (1.5T) with integrated psychophysiological measurement and stimulus delivery equipment; combined EEG and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) with neuronavigation; transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS); virtual, augmented, and substitutional reality methods; eye-tracking, ultrahaptics, and dedicated high-performance computing equipment.  A new 3T MRI scanner will be installed in early 2017.  Of course the main resource we have is the range of wonderfully talented faculty, researchers, and students.

Keep in touch!

Information about our research interests and friends can be also found on the Sackler Centre Facebook page; and keep up-to-date with our progress by following us on Twitter.

Other Sackler Funded Centres: