How we pay attention and focus is a question being pursued right here at the McGovern Institute.

Ask the Brain: How does the brain focus?


This is a very interesting question, and one that researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research are actively pursuing. It’s also important for understanding what happens in conditions such as ADHD. There are constant distractions in the world, a cacophony of noise and visual stimulation. How and where we focus our attention, and what the brain attends to vs. treating as background information, is a big question in neuroscience. Thanks to work from researchers, including Robert Desimone, we understand quite a bit about how this works in the visual system in particular. What his lab has found is that when we pay attention to something specific, neurons in the visual cortex responding to the object we’re focusing upon fire in synchrony, whereas those responding to irrelevant information become suppressed. It’s almost as if this synchrony “increases the volume” so that the responding neurons rise above general noise.

Synchronized activity of neurons occurs as they oscillate together at a particular frequency, but the frequency of oscillation really matters when it comes to attention and focus vs. inattention and distraction. To find out more about this, I asked a postdoc in the Desimone lab, Yasaman Bagherzadeh about the role of different “brainwaves,” or oscillations at different frequencies, in attention.

“Studies in humans have shown that enhanced synchrony between neurons in the alpha range –8–12 Hz— is actually associated with inattention and distracting information,” explains Bagherzadeh, “whereas enhanced gamma synchrony (about 30-150 Hz) is associated with attention and focus on a target. For example, when a stimulus (through the ears or eyes) or its location (left vs. right) is intentionally ignored, this is preceded by a relative increase in alpha power, while a stimulus you’re attending to is linked to an increase in gamma power.”

Attention in the Desimone lab (no pun intended) has also recently been focused on covert attention. This type of spatial attention was traditionally thought to occur through a mental shift without a glance, but the Desimone lab recently found that even during these mental shifts, animal sneakily glance at objects that attention becomes focused on. Think now of something you know is nearby (a cup of coffee for example), but not in the center of your field of vision. Chances are that you just sneakily glanced at that object.

Previously these sneaky glances/small eye movements, called microsaccades (MS for short), were considered to be involuntary movements without any functional role. However, in the recent Desimone lab study, it was found that a MS significantly modulates neural activity during the attention period. This means that when you glance at something, even sneakily, it is intimately linked to attention. In other words, when it comes to spatial attention, eye movements seem to play a significant role.

Various questions arise about the mechanisms of spatial attention as a result this study, as outlined by Karthik Srinivasan, a postdoctoral associate in the Desimone lab.

“How are eye movement signals and attentional processing coordinated? What’s the role of the different frequencies of oscillation for such coordination? Is there a role for them or are they just the frequency domain representation (i.e., an epiphenomenon) of a temporal/dynamical process? Is attention a sustained process or rhythmic or something more dynamic?” Srinivasan lists some of the questions that come out of his study and goes on to explain the implications of the study further. “It is hard to believe that covert attention is a sustained process (the so-called ‘spotlight theory of attention’), given that neural activity during the attention period can be modulated by covert glances. A few recent studies have supported the idea that attention is a rhythmic process that can be uncoupled from eye movements. While this is an idea made attractive by its simplicity, it’s clear that small glances can affect neural activity related to attention, and MS are not rhythmic. More work is thus needed to get to a more unified theory that accounts for all of the data out there related to eye movements and their close link to attention.”

Answering some of the questions that Bagherzadeh, Srinivasan, and others are pursuing in the Desimone lab, both experimentally and theoretically, will clear up some of the issues above, and improve our understanding of how the brain focuses attention.

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