Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Seeing without looking: Brain structure crucial for moving the mind's spotlight

Date:
December 29, 2009
Source:
Salk Institute
Summary:
Like a spotlight that illuminates an otherwise dark scene, attention brings to mind specific details of our environment while shutting others out. A new study shows that the superior colliculus, a brain structure that primarily had been known for its role in the control of eye and head movements, is crucial for moving the mind's spotlight.

During the motion discrimination task the test subjects had to fixate their gaze at the square in the middle while reporting the direction of movement in the red circle.
Credit: Image courtesy of Lee Lovejoy, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Like a spotlight that illuminates an otherwise dark scene, attention brings to mind specific details of our environment while shutting others out. A new study by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies shows that the superior colliculus, a brain structure that primarily had been known for its role in the control of eye and head movements, is crucial for moving the mind's spotlight.

Their findings, published in the Dec. 20, 2009, issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, add new insight to our understanding of how attention is controlled by the brain. The results are closely related to a neurological disorder known as the neglect syndrome, and they may also shed light on the origins of other disorders associated with chronic attention problems, such as autism or attention deficit disorder.

"Our ability to survive in the world depends critically on our ability to respond to relevant pieces of information and ignore others," explains graduate student and first author Lee Lovejoy, who conducted the study together with Richard Krauzlis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Salk's Systems Neurobiology Laboratory. "Our work shows that the superior colliculus is involved in the selection of things we will respond to, either by looking at them or by thinking about them."

As we focus on specific details in our environment, we usually shift our gaze along with our attention. "We often look directly at attended objects and the superior colliculus is a major component of the motor circuits that control how we orient our eyes and head toward something seen or heard," says Krauzlis.

But humans and other primates are particularly adept at looking at one thing while paying attention to another. As social beings, they very often have to process visual information without looking directly at each other, which could be interpreted as a threat. This requires the ability to attend covertly.

It had been known that the superior colliculus plays a role in deciding how to orient the eyes and head to interesting objects in the environment. But it was not clear whether it also had a say in covert attention.

In their current study, the Salk researchers specifically asked whether the superior colliculus is necessary for covert attention. To tease out the superior colliculus' role in covert attention, they designed a motion discrimination task that distinguished between control of gaze and control of attention.

The superior colliculus contains a topographic map of the visual space around us, just as conventional maps mirror geographical areas. Lovejoy and Krauzlis exploited this property to temporarily inactivate the part of the superior colliculus corresponding to the location of the cued stimulus on the computer screen. No longer aware of the relevant information right in front of them the subjects instead based all of their decision about the stimulus' movement on irrelevant information found elsewhere on the screen.

"The result is very similar to what happens in patients with neglect syndrome," explains Lovejoy, who is also a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at UC San Diego. "Up to a half of acute right-hemisphere stroke patients demonstrate signs of spatial neglect, failing to be aware of objects or people to their left in extra-personal space."

"Our results show that deciding what to attend to and what to ignore is not just accomplished with the neocortex and thalamus, but also depends on phylogenetically older structures in the brainstem," says Krauzlis. "Understanding how these newer and older parts of the circuit interact may be crucial for understanding what goes wrong in disorders of attention."

The work was funded in part by the Simons Foundation, the Institute for Neural Computation and an Aginsky Scholar Award.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Salk Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Salk Institute. "Seeing without looking: Brain structure crucial for moving the mind's spotlight." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 December 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091228090545.htm>.
Salk Institute. (2009, December 29). Seeing without looking: Brain structure crucial for moving the mind's spotlight. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091228090545.htm
Salk Institute. "Seeing without looking: Brain structure crucial for moving the mind's spotlight." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091228090545.htm (accessed April 21, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Monday, April 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) The brains of artists aren't really left-brain or right-brain, but rather have extra neural matter in visual and motor control areas. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) A recent study links apathetic feelings to a smaller brain. Researchers say the results indicate a need for apathy screening for at-risk seniors. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) Pushing the limits on style and self-expression is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. How far should schools go with their dress codes? The courts have sided with schools in an era when school safety is paramount. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins