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How well can you focus? Identification of neural network in visual attention
A new study on the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) brain area of macaques has identified a network of neurons that interact to rapidly process visual information while ignoring distractions. In humans, this ability is key to effective performance of tasks from driving a car to performing brain surgery. The study, published in the current issue of the journal Neuron, comes from researchers based in Canada and Germany and is the first convincing demonstration that an ensemble of neurons in the LPFC reliably generates attentional signals in a way that is resilient to distraction. The results of the study have implications for people with some neurological diseases and for paralysed people.

In the current study, the researchers recorded the brain activity of the macaques as they moved their eyes to watch objects on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions. The recorded signals were processed by a decoder on a personal computer mimicking the type of computations that the brain carries out while focussing. Lead author Julio Martinez-Trujillo, of McGill University in Montreal explains the results obtained: "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…We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction."

Furthermore, the researchers were able to manipulate the neuronal interactions that had been recorded and thereby alter the ability of the computer to ‘focus’. They could thus induce both ‘focused’ and ‘distracted’ states in the computer.  First author Sébastien Tremblay of McGill University explains the significance of this result in terms of understanding of and intervention in diseases: "This suggests that we are tapping into the mechanisms responsible for the quality of the attentional focus, and might shed light into the reasons why this process fails in certain neurological diseases such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia…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 paralysed use their thoughts to control objects in their environment."

Reference: Tremblay S, Pieper F, Sachs A, Martinez-Trujillo J. Attentional Filtering of Visual Information by Neuronal Ensembles in the Primate Lateral Prefrontal Cortex. Neuron 85(1): 202–215, 7 January 2015. DOI:

Press release: McGill University; available at
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