Saturday, April 26, 2014

How the Brain Pays Attention: Identifying Regions of the Brain Dealing with Object-Based, Spacial Attention

New research has identified a brain circuit that is key to shifting attention from one object to another. The researchers found that there is object-based attention and spatial attention, each of which is centered in different parts of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex ("inferior frontal junction (IFJ), which controls visual processing areas that are tuned to recognize a specific category of objects") is where the brain is able to switch attention from one target to another.

How the brain pays attention: Identifying regions of the brain dealing with object-based, spacial attention

Date: April 10, 2014
Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A brain circuit that's key to shifting our focus from one object to another has been identified by neuroscientists. The new findings suggest that there are two types of attention that have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions: object-based attention, and spatial attention. In both cases, the prefrontal cortex -- the control center for most cognitive functions -- appears to take charge of the brain's attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input.

Picking out a face in the crowd is a complicated task: Your brain has to retrieve the memory of the face you're seeking, then hold it in place while scanning the crowd, paying special attention to finding a match.

A new study by MIT neuroscientists reveals how the brain achieves this type of focused attention on faces or other objects: A part of the prefrontal cortex known as the inferior frontal junction (IFJ) controls visual processing areas that are tuned to recognize a specific category of objects, the researchers report in the April 10 online edition of Science.

Scientists know much less about this type of attention, known as object-based attention, than spatial attention, which involves focusing on what's happening in a particular location. However, the new findings suggest that these two types of attention have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions, says Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience, director of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the paper.

"The interactions are surprisingly similar to those seen in spatial attention," Desimone says. "It seems like it's a parallel process involving different areas."

In both cases, the prefrontal cortex -- the control center for most cognitive functions -- appears to take charge of the brain's attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. For spatial attention, that involves regions of the visual cortex that map to a particular area within the visual field.

In the new study, the researchers found that IFJ coordinates with a brain region that processes faces, known as the fusiform face area (FFA), and a region that interprets information about places, known as the parahippocampal place area (PPA). The FFA and PPA were first identified in the human cortex by Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

The IFJ has previously been implicated in a cognitive ability known as working memory, which is what allows us to gather and coordinate information while performing a task -- such as remembering and dialing a phone number, or doing a math problem.

For this study, the researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to scan human subjects as they viewed a series of overlapping images of faces and houses. Unlike functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is commonly used to measure brain activity, MEG can reveal the precise timing of neural activity, down to the millisecond. The researchers presented the overlapping streams at two different rhythms -- two images per second and 1.5 images per second -- allowing them to identify brain regions responding to those stimuli.

"We wanted to frequency-tag each stimulus with different rhythms. When you look at all of the brain activity, you can tell apart signals that are engaged in processing each stimulus," says Daniel Baldauf, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute and the lead author of the paper.

Each subject was told to pay attention to either faces or houses; because the houses and faces were in the same spot, the brain could not use spatial information to distinguish them. When the subjects were told to look for faces, activity in the FFA and the IFJ became synchronized, suggesting that they were communicating with each other. When the subjects paid attention to houses, the IFJ synchronized instead with the PPA.

The researchers also found that the communication was initiated by the IFJ and the activity was staggered by 20 milliseconds -- about the amount of time it would take for neurons to electrically convey information from the IFJ to either the FFA or PPA. The researchers believe that the IFJ holds onto the idea of the object that the brain is looking for and directs the correct part of the brain to look for it.

Further bolstering this idea, the researchers used an MRI-based method to measure the white matter that connects different brain regions and found that the IFJ is highly connected with both the FFA and PPA.

Members of Desimone's lab are now studying how the brain shifts its focus between different types of sensory input, such as vision and hearing. They are also investigating whether it might be possible to train people to better focus their attention by controlling the brain interactions involved in this process.

"You have to identify the basic neural mechanisms and do basic research studies, which sometimes generate ideas for things that could be of practical benefit," Desimone says. "It's too early to say whether this training is even going to work at all, but it's something that we're actively pursuing."

Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original article was written by Anne Trafton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:
Baldauf, D, and Desimone, R. (2014, Apr 25). Neural Mechanisms of Object-Based Attention. Science; 344 (6182): 424-427.  DOI: 10.1126/science.1247003
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Neural Mechanisms of Object-Based Attention

Daniel Baldauf, Robert Desimone


How we attend to objects and their features that cannot be separated by location is not understood. We presented two temporally and spatially overlapping streams of objects, faces versus houses, and used magnetoencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging to separate neuronal responses to attended and unattended objects. Attention to faces versus houses enhanced the sensory responses in the fusiform face area (FFA) and parahippocampal place area (PPA), respectively. The increases in sensory responses were accompanied by induced gamma synchrony between the inferior frontal junction, IFJ, and either FFA or PPA, depending on which object was attended. The IFJ appeared to be the driver of the synchrony, as gamma phases were advanced by 20 ms in IFJ compared to FFA or PPA. Thus, the IFJ may direct the flow of visual processing during object-based attention, at least in part through coupled oscillations with specialized areas such as FFA and PPA. 

Editor's Summary

House or Face?

The neural mechanisms of spatial attention are well known, unlike nonspatial attention. Baldauf and Desimone (p. 424, published online 10 April) combined several technologies to identify a fronto-temporal network in humans that mediates nonspatial object-based attention. There is a clear top-down directionality of these oscillatory interactions, establishing the inferior-frontal cortex as a key source of nonspatial attentional inputs to the inferior-temporal cortex. Surprisingly, the mechanisms for nonspatial attention are strikingly parallel to the mechanisms of spatial attention.

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