Montreal: In a first, researchers from McGill University have identified a network of neurons in a particular area of the brain that helps people focus whether they are driving a car or performing a surgery.
The neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex interact with one another to promptly filter visual information while at the same time ignoring distractions.
It is a discovery with potentially far reaching implications for people who suffer from diseases such as autism, ADHD and schizophrenia.
The researchers recorded brain activity in macaques as they moved their eyes to look at objects being displayed on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions.
These recorded signals were then fed into a decoder running on a personal computer which mimicked the kinds of computations performed by the brain as it focuses.
"The decoder was able to predict very consistently and, within a few milliseconds, where the macaques were covertly focusing attention even before they looked in that direction," explained Julio Martinez-Trujillo from McGill's department of physiology and the lead author of the paper.
"We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction," he noted.
What was even more interesting was that the researchers were able to manipulate the computer's ability to "focus" by subtly manipulating the neuronal activity that had been recorded and input into the machine.
In effect, by manipulating the interactions of the neurons, the researchers were able to induce "focused" and "distracted" states in the computer.
"This suggests that we are tapping into the mechanisms responsible for the quality of the attentional focus, and might shed light into the reasons why this process fails in certain neurological diseases," added Sebastien Tremblay, a doctoral student at McGill University.
The discovery could also lead to important breakthroughs in the emerging field of neural prosthetics where people who are paralysed use their thoughts to control objects in their environment.
The paper was published in the journal Neuron.