Inattentive? A Cure May Be on the Way
Most of us feel prone to distraction in our busy days, with our attention constantly moving from housework to children or browser window to browser window. But for some people, paying attention for any length of time is a serious challenge. These include people with ADHD, schizophrenia and autism, in which attentional focus is dysfunctional.
A group of scientists believe they’ve discovered the root cause of inattention, which may one day lead to enhancements in so-called “neural prosthetics,” where people who are paralyzed use their thoughts to control objects around them.
The team, from McGill University in Canada, have reported that a network of neurons located in the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) work together to filter visual information to enable focus while ignoring distractions. The authors examined brain activity in macaques, an “old world” monkey that is often used by scientists in neurological research due to the similarity between its brain and the human brain.
As the macaques moved their eyes to look at objects being played on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions, the researchers tracked the activity in their brains. The signals they recorded were then put into a computer with a decoder to work out the calculations that were occurring while the macaques attempted to focus.
"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," says lead author Dr. Julio Martinez-Trujillo. "We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction."
Not only did the researchers identify the neuron network responsible for the attention focus, they were also able to manipulate the signals they had recorded and put into the computer. By altering the neuronal activity, the team could change how well the computer focused, allowing them to induce states of focus or distraction in the machine.
Sebastien Tremblay, a doctoral student and first author of the study, says this finding indicates that researchers may be close to discovering the precise mechanisms behind how effectively people focus their attention. This new-found knowledge could help researchers understand neurological disorders better.
"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," Tremblay said. Currently, neural prosthetics are used by doctors to restore such functions as bladder control, hearing and respiration. The new discoveries could lead to a greater understanding of neural dysfunction and possibly even a cure for its symptoms.