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A recent R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund a multi-region study of how neurons within the brain prepare and maintain an internal state of attention. The project is led by Matt Smith, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and the Neuroscience Institute, in collaboration with Byron Yu, professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering.

Recent work by Smith has focused on discovering the neurological basis for internal states, the array of conscious and unconscious factors within the brain that affect behavior and decision-making. In this most recent grant, Smith and his team will focus on spatial attention, the internal state that occurs when the location of an upcoming event is known, allowing individuals to respond with shorter reaction times and greater accuracy.

Previous studies have largely focused on observing changes in an individual’s attention after a stimulus has been initiated, failing to capture how the brain prepares for an anticipated stimulus. These studies have been limited to one region of the brain at a time, yet Smith and his team note that prior research has indicated that multiple populations of neurons work in concert in order to establish and maintain attention. Therefore, their purpose in this study was to capture multiple populations of neurons simultaneously across the full timescale of preparing, establishing, and maintaining attention on a stimulus.

“We’re particularly interested in what’s called covert attention, meaning the ability to pay attention to things you’re not looking at,” says Smith. “For instance, you’re driving down the road looking at the car ahead of you to make sure you’re not too close, but as you approach an intersection you may concentrate on the traffic light at the edge of your field of view while maintaining your gaze on the car.”

This ability to look at one thing while focusing on another is a familiar example of covert attention, and further study of this phenomena could provide important insight into how different regions of neurons within the brain are shifting and preparing to shift attention toward an anticipated stimulus.

Analysis of how the brain selectively amplifies different populations of neurons throughout the process of anticipating and reacting to stimuli would be immensely informative for the fields of neuroscience and psychology. Virtually every major neurological disorder affects an individual’s attention in some way. Understanding the neuroscience behind how these states of attention are managed would provide insight into how these conditions affect the brain. With support from the NIH, Smith’s study will help reveal how multiple populations of neurons coordinate to direct and maintain attention.