McGill University researchers have identified a network of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain that interact with one another to enable us to quickly filter visual information while ignoring distractions. The discovery could have far-reaching implications for people who suffer from diseases such as autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia and for brain-mind interface devices. Our ability to pay attention to certain things while ignoring distractions determines how good we are at a given task, whether it is driving a car or doing brain surgery.
Predicting where a monkey will look next
The researchers recorded brain activity in macaque monkeys as they moved their eyes to look at objects being displayed on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions. These recorded signals were then input into a decoder (running on a computer) that mimicked the kinds of computations performed by the brain as it focuses. There were some startling results. “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 Julio Martinez-Trujillo, of McGill’s Department of Physiology and the lead author of the paper. “We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction.”