In effect, the network was turning the knobs on inhibitory processes, not excitatory ones, with the TRN inhibiting information that the prefrontal cortex deemed distracting. If the mouse needed to prioritize auditory information, the prefrontal cortex told the visual TRN to increase its activity to suppress the visual thalamus — stripping away irrelevant visual data. Until now. Halassa and his colleagues have finally put the rest of the pieces in place, and the results reveal much about how we should be approaching the study of attention.
The full circuit, they found, goes from the prefrontal cortex to a much deeper structure called the basal ganglia often associated with motor control and a host of other functions , then to the TRN and the thalamus, before finally going back up to higher cortical regions.
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When the mice were cued to pay attention to certain sounds, the TRN helped to suppress irrelevant background noise within the auditory signal. Tadin studies this kind of background suppression in other processes that happen more quickly and automatically than selective attention. Counting how many times the team in white passes the basketball reveals one surprising aspect of how selective attention works. Work by Fiebelkorn suggests that the brain has a way to hedge against those risks. When people think about the searchlight of attention, Fiebelkorn says, they think of it as a steady, continuously shining beam that illuminates where an animal should direct its cognitive resources.
According to his findings, the focus of the attentional spotlight seems to get relatively weaker about four times per second, presumably to prevent animals from staying overly focused on a single location or stimulus in their environment.
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These studies mark a critical shift: Attentional processes were once understood to be the province of the cortex alone. Correction added on Sept. Halassa gives his attention to a multi-electrode array, a device that he and his colleagues used to control brain activity during their search for the neural circuitry that filters out distracting stimuli.
Halassa is particularly intrigued by what the connection between attention and the basal ganglia might reveal about conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, which often manifest as hypersensitivity to certain kinds of inputs. But perhaps the most profoundly interesting point about the involvement of the basal ganglia is that the structure is usually associated with motor control, although research has increasingly implicated it in reward-based learning, decision-making and other motivation-based types of behavior as well.
The reverse also happens, with body movements as small as the flicker of an eye also guiding perception. Slagter is now studying the role that the basal ganglia might play in consciousness. Get highlights of the most important news delivered to your email inbox.
Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours New York time and can only accept comments written in English. Read Later. A brain circuit that suppresses distracting sensory information holds important clues about attention and other cognitive processes.
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