A Holiday Chorus in the Brain Gets the Job Done Faster

Article ID: 516893

Released: 21-Dec-2005 1:00 PM EST

Source Newsroom: McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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Newswise — Finding it difficult to concentrate with all those holiday distractions? Maybe it's the neurons in your brain that are singing out of tune. When neurons synchronize their activity, they call attention to the task at hand " and help speed the response time, according to a study by Robert Desimone, a principle investigator and the director of the McGovern Institute at MIT. The study appears in the December 21 advanced online issue of Nature.

The neurons studied belong to the V4 brain region, which plays an important role in activities involving visual attention, such as focusing on that year-end report and blocking out all the holiday lights. The two monkeys involved in this study had to solve a subtler change, a white pattern turning slightly yellow on a video screen while distracting lights competed nearby.

Previously, Desimone had observed that certain neurons harmonize their activity when monkeys pay attention. His new finding indicates that the greater the synchrony, the faster the monkey can detect important events. Desimone was able to use the neural activity to predict how fast the monkey would respond, at least a half a second before the monkey actually made a move. But the synchronized neurons must be just the ones communicating about the important stimulus in the brain. When the neurons coding the distracting stimuli synchronize their activity, monkeys become sluggish at the same task. A similar process might happen when a child with attention difficulty observes the birds outside the window instead of the teacher at the blackboard.

"We selected an attention task that allowed us to determine the relationship between synchronized neurons and the ability to detect an event, on a trial by trial basis," explains Desimone. "We found that for any given trial, the more coordinated the neurons, the faster the solution, but the opposite occurs when neurons coding distracting stimuli start synchronizing."

"Our findings suggest that the synchronization of V4 neurons reflects a general mechanism for rapidly funneling important information to other regions of the brain," says Desimone. "This leads us to ask if disruptions of neural synchrony might lead to some of the attention problems that are found in so many brain disorders."

This work was performed as a collaboration with Desimone's colleagues Pascal Fries and Thilo Womelsdorf at the F. C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and with Partha Mitra at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories.

About the McGovern Institute at MIT
The McGovern Institute at MIT is a research and teaching institute committed to advancing human understanding and communications. Led by a team of world-renowned, multi-disciplinary scientists, The McGovern Institute was established in February 2000 by Lore Harp McGovern and Patrick McGovern to meet one of the great challenges of modern science - the development of a deep understanding of thought and emotion in terms of their realization in the human brain. Additional information is available at: http://web.mit.edu/mcgovern/


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