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How our brain helps us remain focused

December 8, 2011 - Washington

Scientists have discovered mechanisms that facilitate our brain to focus, by successfully directing only pertinent information to perceptual brain regions, a new study has suggested.

The study by researchers at RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) provide valuable insights on how our brains achieve such focus and on how this focus can be disrupted, suggesting new ways of presenting information that augment the brain's natural focal capabilities.

Our brain achieves the ability to focus attention basically due to two distinct processes, referred to as 'sensitivity enhancement' and 'efficient selection'.

Sensitivity enhancement corresponds to improvements in how neurons in the cortex represent sensory information like sounds and lights, similar to the volume control or reception control on a television set. Efficient selection is more like a filter, routing important sensory information to higher-order perceptual areas of the brain while suppressing disruptions from irrelevant information.

With their research, Justin Gardner and colleagues set out to put these hypotheses to the test and determine which of them plays a dominant role in perception.

To do so, they measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while human subjects either focused their attention on a single visual location, or distributed their attention across multiple locations. To evaluate results, they used computational models about how brain signals should change based on how well subjects were able to focus their attention.

What they found was that the computational model that best captured the brain activity in the human subjects was the one in which sensory signals were efficiently selected.

The model also made a prediction about what kind of stimuli are particularly disruptive to our ability to focus, suggesting that signals which evoke high neural activity are preferentially passed on to perceptual areas of the brain: stimuli with high contrast that evoke large sensory responses, such as flashing lights or loud noises, can thus disrupt our ability to focus.

While shedding light on the origins of perception, the results also hint at new ways of presenting information that capitalize on increasing neural activity to help our brains focus, promising applications in the development of critical information display technologies.

The findings also offer insights into the causes of common attention-related disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study has been published in Neuron.


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