Are you prone to distraction? Was your attention caught by something outside the window before you reached the end of that last sentence? Why does that happen? A group of scientists believe they have the answer, identifying a group of neurons in the brain that may be responsible for lapses in concentration.

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The study is the first time that researchers have managed to convincingly identify a network of neurons responsible for focusing attention.

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.

Their work, published in Neuron, could have huge implications for people with neurological disease such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia, in which attentional focus is dysfunctional.

Previous studies had mainly documented the activity of neurons in the LPFC in response to visual attention independent of each other. “However, in realistic settings, ensembles of simultaneously active LPFC neurons must generate attentional signals on a single-trial basis,” write the authors.

For their study, the authors examined the 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 human brains.

As the macaques moved their eyes to look at objects being displayed on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions, the researchers tracked their brain activity. The signals they recorded were then input 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 were the researchers successful at identifying the neuron network responsible for the attention focus but they were also able to manipulate the signals they had recorded and put into the computer.

By altering the neuronal activity, the team could alter how well the computer “focused,” effectively allowing them to induce states of “focus” or “distraction” in the machine.

Sébastien Tremblay, a doctoral student and first author of the study, says this finding indicates that they may be close to uncovering the precise mechanisms behind how effectively people focus their attention. This new-found knowledge could help researchers understand neurological diseases 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, where people who are paralyzed use their thoughts to control objects in their environment,” he adds.

Neural prostheses are devices that electrically stimulate nerves to restore functions to the body lost through nerve damage. Currently, neural prostheses are used by doctors to restore functions such as bladder control, hearing and respiration.

Could the new discovery outlined in this study lead to breakthroughs in patient rehabilitation, as well as furthering our understanding of neurological diseases? With the attention of researchers focused on the findings of this study, only time will tell.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a neurological study of driving habits, suggesting that an answer for unexplained jerky movements from drivers could be found in innate human behavior.