Odjel za psihologiju
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Prof. Ivica Kostović

University of Zagreb

Neurobiology of emergence of consciousness and self-awareness in human fetuses and children  

Conscious-processing, self-awareness and mentalizing are crucial cognitive abilities of human beings and their exact biological basis is subject of intensive debate. We believe that studying of neurodevelopment is the most promising approach in order to reveal biological basis of these human characteristic phenomena. In this presentation systematic relationship between microstructural development and emergence of consciousness, self-awareness and decision-making are presented systematically from early fetal phase to 6 years of age. Early human fetus can be already considered as human being due to the presence of early cortical synapses and endogenous (“spontaneous phase”) activity, characterized by early input from thalamus to the transient subplate zone, but without consciousness and self-awareness. During late fetal period which corresponds to prematurely born infants (after 24 weeks of gestation) there is co-existence between transient and permanent thalamocortical circuitry and cortex responds to pain, sound (including mother’s voice) and other sensory stimuli, and first networks activities can be monitored by fMR and other techniques. This sensory-expectant phase can be described as pre- consciousness phase. These functional properties became more pronounced near term period when default networks show activity along the medial cortex. During early infancy parallel with differentiation of functional and structural connectome (connectivity of the whole brain) and layer 3 (psychic) neurons first “triadic” behavioral phenomena indicate social interactions and awareness of body as a prerequisite for conscious experience. Self-recognition which occurs after first year of life occurs parallel with peak production of cortical synapses, development of salience and initial networks integration of precuneus, medial frontal lobe network which is thought to be essential for self-awareness. Despite further differentiation and integration of all networks, strategic reasoning does not develop before 6 years of childhood parallel with intracortical myelination which facilitates strength of functional and structural connectome. These recent results in biology and emergence of human consciousness, self-awareness and decision-making are essential for understanding of biological basis of human cognition and behavior (“hominization”) and treatments required in clinical and rehabilitation procedures, upbringing of children and educational sciences. 


Professor Emeritus Ivica Kostovic is an honorary director of Croatian Institute for Brain Research, and a full member of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Professor Kostovic’s rich biography can be found at the LINK.