From moment to moment, the brain processes millions of pieces of information. When people need to focus on a critical task, special circuits in the brain's attention network kick in to filter the information firehose.
Although researchers have identified the major brain regions involved in attention, there are likely more specialized areas, called microstructures, that control particular tasks. The National Institutes of Health is awarding $2.7 million to the University of California, Davis to search for attention-related microstructures in the human brain. "We are going to investigate brain attention systems with a higher resolution than has ever been attempted in humans," said principal investigator George "Ron" Mangun, distinguished professor in the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the Departments of Psychology and Neurology. "This step forward is like the difference between observing the city of Sacramento from space, as compared to mapping out its complex organization and functions in detail on the ground," he said.
Attention is the ability to focus on one or a few task-relevant sensory inputs, actions or thoughts, while ignoring irrelevant or distracting ones. Mapping out the microstructures involved in attention could provide deeper insight into understanding and treating attention disorders associated with neurological and psychiatric diseases, including attention deficit disorder, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.
Mangun and his collaborators will measure brain activity in volunteers with simultaneous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalographic recording (EEG) — a feat that requires the combined expertise of engineers, psychologists, neuroscientists, statisticians and physicists. Functional MRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, while an EEG records millisecond-to-millisecond changes in brain electrical activity. Typically, these methods are used separately because the very high magnetic fields in the scanner interfere with electrical brain recording. But the team plans to employ specialized equipment to record the EEG in an MRI scanner, which would normally be impossible, Mangun said.
"We will be able to reveal the detailed microstructure of these brain processes, and in so doing be able to distinguish between the functions of the healthy brain from those of diseased or damaged brains and enable a deeper understanding of how the brain enables momentary thought," Mangun said.
The research team also includes, from UC Davis: Steven J. Luck, distinguished professor of psychology and director, Center for Mind and Brain; Emilio Ferrer, professor of psychology; and Costin Tanase, technical director, Imaging Research Center, and clinical specialist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Mingzhou Ding, the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, is co-principal investigator with Mangun.