July 15, 2015

Brain Network that Controls, Redirects Attention Identified

Human-specific network may have evolved to strengthen social communication

(July 15, 2015)  Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) have found that key parts of the human brain network that give us the power to control and redirect our attention—a core cognitive ability—may be unique to humans. The research, which was published in the July 13 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the network may have evolved in response to increasingly complex social cues.

“The human brain is powerful, but even it cannot make sense of the entire sum of stimuli that bombard our senses,” said Vincent P. Ferrera, PhD, the study’s senior author. Dr. Ferrera is a principal investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Bran Behavior Institute and associate professor in the department of neuroscience (in psychiatry) at CUMC. “Instead, it selects and prioritizes information based on what is needed at any given moment—this is called attention. And while attention is a fundamental characteristic of human cognition, and something that we use all the time, the underlying brain circuits that give us this ability remain largely unclear.”

In order to better understand these circuits, the authors compared the brains of primate and human subjects during a specific attention-seeking task. In so doing, they uncovered key clues about these so-called ‘attention networks’: how they evolved and how they underlie human cognitive abilities—and are already using this information to test what role they may play in psychiatric disorders.

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