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“The ability to focus your attention is physically separate in the brain from distracting things grabbing your attention,” says Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT. He led a study published in the journal Science that shows it takes one part of the brain to start concentrating and another to be distracted.
The discovery could help the developments of better treatments for ADD and ADHD.
“Now we know these two things are separate, it raises the possibility that we can fix them independently.”
The brain pays attention in two ways: “top down” (willful, goal oriented attention, the kind needed for reading), and “bottom up” (reflexive attention to sensory information — loud noises, bright colors, perceived threats).
In addition, there are different degrees of attention disorders: some people have a harder time focussing, while others have a harder time filtering out distractions.
Up until now, scientists have studied only one region of the brain at a time, although they have known that paying attention involved multiple brain regions. So Miller studied monkeys by tracking two key areas and how they react together.
The monkeys were trained to take attention tests on a video screen in return for a treat of apple juice. Sometimes they had to concentrate (picking out, say, the left leaning red rectangle from a field of red rectangles) in the way a human picks out the face of a friend in a crowd. Other times bright rectangles — the attention grabbers — flashed off screen at the monkeys.
When the monkeys concentrated voluntarily the “executive center” in the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) was in charge. But when something was distracting, it grabbed the brain in the parietal cortex, toward the back of the brain.
The electrical activity in these two areas began vibrating in synchrony as they signaled one another. But it was at different frequencies, like being at different spots on a radio dial.
Lower-frequency neuron activity was involved in sustaining concentration; distractions occurred at higher frequencies.
The study provides the first good look at how these pysically distinct brain regions interact to govern (at least part of) attention. Dr Debra Babcock, a neurologist at the NIH says, “Once we understand how attention works, we’ll understand how better to treat disorders of attention… This could, in the long term, help us devise therapies.”
That these two types of attention would originate in different areas makes evolutionary sense. Reflexive attention is a more primitive survival tool, while concentration is more advanced.
“If something leaps out of the bush at me, that’s going to be really important and I have to react right away. Your brain is equipped to notice things salient in the environment,” Miller said. “It takes a truly intelligent creature to know what’s important and focus.”
The logical next question is, how does the parietal lobe evaluate what’s important to focus on after it recognizes an attention grabber? “We have a lot more to learn,” says Babcock.
sole source AP article reported online by Komo TV news
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