How the brain pays attention to visual, cognitive, sensory, and motor cues has been represented in a wiring diagram that scientists have created.
The study, conducted by researchers at University of Utah, could help medical experts understand abnormalities in attention that can be seen in many brain disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder.
"This study is the first of its kind to show how the brain switches attention from one feature to the next," said Jeffery S. Anderson.
"The brain is organized into territories, sort of like a map of Europe. There are visual regions, regions that process sound and areas that process sensory and motor information," he added.
In between all these areas lies a key area for processing attention called intraparietal sulcus, which contains a miniature map of all of these territories.
In addition, scientists discovered that this miniature map of all the things one can pay attention to is reproduced in at least 13 other places in the brain. They found connections between these duplicate maps and the intraparietal sulcus.
One map processes eye movements while another processes analytical information. This map of the world that allows us to pay attention may be a fundamental building block for how information is represented in the brain.
"The research uncovers how we can shift our attention to different things with precision. Furthermore, it has important implications for disease. There are several diseases or disorders where attention processing is off, such as autism, attention deficit disorder, and schizophrenia, among others."
The study appears Nov. 1, 2010, online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).