Researchers have for the first time convincingly identified a network of neurons in a particular area of the brain that may offer insight into why some people have trouble focusing while others do not.
The research, published in the journal Neuron, focused on a network of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain, which interact with one another to filter visual information while ignoring distractions.
Using macaques, the research team at McGill University in Montreal recorded the monkeys’ brain activity as they moved their eyes to look at objects being moved on a computer screen, while ignoring other visual distractions. The recorded signals were then input into a decoder running on a personal computer which mimicked the kinds of computations performed by the brain as it focuses.
“The decoder was able to predict very consistently and within a few milliseconds where the macaques were covertly focusing attention even before they looked in that direction,” Julio Martinez-Trujillo, lead author and member of McGill’s department of physiology said in a news release. “We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction.”
The researchers were also able to manipulate the computer’s ability to focus by subtly changing the neuronal activity that had been recorded and input into the machine. The team found that by manipulating the neurons’ interactions, they were able to induce states of both focus and distraction.
“This suggests that we are tapping into the mechanisms responsible for the quality of the attentional focus, and might shed light into the reasons why this process fails in certain neurological diseases such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia,” Sebastien Tremblay, study author and doctoral student at McGill University said.
“Being able to extract and read the neuronal code from higher-level areas of the brain could also lead to important breakthroughs in the emerging field of neural prosthetics, where people who are paralyzed used their thoughts to control objects in their environment,” Tremblay said.