Paying Attention to Attention

Spatial attention is what happens when we selectively focus on a region in our visual field and quickly extract information from the scene. When you look for your friend with the yellow hat in the upper deck of the arena, and you filter out all the other yellow caps to find him, you’re utilizing spatial attention.

At least, that’s how it works in a healthy brain. For people with a range of disparate ailments – autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders, or schizophrenia, for example – finding the friend in the yellow hat isn’t all that simple. And so, understanding the role of attention in sensory perception is a critical component of neuro research, and ultimately, in the future development of better diagnostic tests or treatments, and also for the enhancement of normal attention.

With all of that in mind, Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Bilal Haider and his team are meticulously investigating the brain circuits and mechanisms underlying visual spatial attention, utilizing transgenic mice, publishing their most recent findings in the online journal, Nature Communications, with an article entitled, “Spatial attention enhances network, cellular and subthreshold responses in mouse visual cortex.”

“We figured out how to control and measure visual attention in the mouse brain,” said Haider, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University (BME), and a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech.

“We then found that attention to a point in space quickly causes widespread enhancement of neural responses to both faint and bright visual stimuli at that location – just like increasing the volume amplifies all the details in the music, not just the vocals,” explained Haider.

The latest work builds on his lab’s previous research, which showed that mice are an excellent model system for studying how neural circuits mediate visual behavior, providing a useful platform for studying what happens when humans make fast decisions – or when they don’t – about visual information.

“This paper sets us up to identify the neural circuits underlying these attentional effects using genetic technologies easily exploitable in mice, and also to investigate attention deficits in mouse models of neurological disease,” said Haider, whose collaborators/co-writers were lead author Anderson Speed (BME graduate student), Joseph Del Rosario (BME grad student), and Navid Mikail (former BME undergraduate researcher in Haider’s lab).

The research was funded by the Whitehall Foundation, Sloan Foundation, GT Neural Engineering Center, NIH NINDS (1R01NS107968), and NIH BRAIN Initiative (1R01NS109978).

News Contact Info

Jerry Grillo

Communications Officer II

Parker H. Petit Institute for

Bioengineering and Bioscience