A network of neurons in a particular area of the brain, the lateral prefrontal cortex interact with one another to promptly filter visual information while at the same time ignore distractions. Scientists have convincingly identified such a network of neurons.
The researchers recorded brain activity in macaques 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 personal computer which mimicked the kinds of computations performed by the brain as it focuses.
Julio Martinez-Trujillo, of McGill's Department of Physiology and the lead author of the paper, said that 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 and they were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction.
The researchers said that they were able to manipulate the computer's ability to "focus" by subtly manipulating the neuronal activity that had been recorded and input into the machine. In effect, by manipulating the interactions of the neurons, the researchers were able to induce "focused" and "distracted" states in the computer.
Scientists added that this suggests that we are tapping into the mechanisms responsible for the quality of the intentional focus, and might shed light into the reasons why this process fails in certain neurological diseases such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia.
The study was published in the journal Neuron.