Regulating brain activity to improve attention

June 4, 2014 by Fraser Wilson
Regulating brain activity to improve attention

(Medical Xpress)—Researchers from The University of Nottingham have found that balanced activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex is necessary for attention.

The research helps to make sense of attention deficits in people suffering from cognitive disorders—like schizophrenia—who often find it hard to sustain their attention. This has a significant effect on many aspects of their lives, including the ability to follow conversations, drive a car and hold down a job.

The paper—"Too little or too much: hypoactivation and disinhibition of medial cause attentional deficits"—is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Activity in a healthy brain is controlled by inhibitory signals between neurons. The research shows that disrupting this healthy inhibition may be just as bad for attention as reducing . It is often assumed that increasing has cognitive benefits, but the findings show that this is not always the case.

The research was carried out by a team in the University's School of Psychology and involved inhibiting or disinhibiting the prefrontal cortex in rats and monitoring the effect. The researchers found that both of these extremes resulted in attentional deficits and that the ability to pay attention required an appropriate balance where neuron-firing was kept within a certain range.

Schizophrenia and attention deficits

Studies of the brain in people with schizophrenia suggest aberrant neuron-firing in the prefrontal cortex. There is evidence that neuron firing in this part of the brain is often too high or too low.

Dr Tobias Bast, who led the study together with first author Dr Marie Pezze, said: "The implication of our findings is that the abnormalities we see in the prefrontal cortex of schizophrenia patients, for example, are indeed a plausible cause of the attention deficit these patients have.

"It also means that if we want to treat this pharmacologically, we can't just boost activity of the prefrontal or inactivate it, because that would actually result in an impairment. What we need to do is look at restoring balance of activity through drugs which keep the activity within a certain range."

Cognitive deficits associated with schizophrenia

In people with schizophrenia, cognitive deficits—such as problems with —are less striking than other issues associated with the disorder, such as hallucinations, but are nevertheless a major problem.

Dr Bast said: "Initially people focused on the so-called 'psychotic symptoms', including hallucinations and delusions, so that's what probably comes to mind when you think of schizophrenia. They have been in the fore because they have been so striking and that's why referrals are made. But these can be treated, at least in a large proportion of patients, by using anti-psychotic medication, which we have had since the late 1950s.

"The problem is that unfortunately anti-psychotic drugs don't improve cognitive deficits which are very debilitating, affecting many aspects of the patients' lives. Cognitive deficits are a big problem and something that is currently not treated so finding something that helps this is really important."

What's next?

The researchers plan to study new treatments to improve attentional problems caused by imbalanced brain activity. In addition to schizophrenia, such treatments may also help in other cognitive disorders where disrupted control of brain activity has been implicated, including in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

The paper was written by Dr Bast with Dr Pezze and PhD student Stephanie McGarrity from the University's School of Psychology, alongside Dr Rob Mason, and Professor Kevin Fone from the School of Life Sciences. The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the Royal Society and The University of Nottingham.

Explore further: Altered brain activity responsible for cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia

Related Stories

Altered brain activity responsible for cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia

March 20, 2013
Cognitive problems with memory and behavior experienced by individuals with schizophrenia are linked with changes in brain activity; however, it is difficult to test whether these changes are the underlying cause or consequence ...

Could poor sleep contribute to symptoms of schizophrenia?

November 14, 2012
Neuroscientists studying the link between poor sleep and schizophrenia have found that irregular sleep patterns and desynchronised brain activity during sleep could trigger some of the disease's symptoms. The findings, published ...

New joint clinical trial may improve cognitive function in those with schizophrenia, diabetes

August 30, 2013
In a joint study between Australia's University of Wollongong and China's Beijing HuiLongGuan Hospital, researchers led by Dr Mei Han have found that the prevention and treatment of diabetes might prove beneficial for people ...

Human cognition depends upon slow-firing neurons

February 20, 2013
Good mental health and clear thinking depend upon our ability to store and manipulate thoughts on a sort of "mental sketch pad." In a new study, Yale School of Medicine researchers describe the molecular basis of this ability—the ...

Shedding light on memory deficits in schizophrenic patients and healthy aged subjects

February 23, 2012
Working memory, which consists in the short-term retention and processing of information, depends on specific regions of the brain working correctly. This faculty tends to deteriorate in patients with schizophrenia, as it ...

Unlocking a major secret of the brain: Researchers uncover crucial link between hippocampus and prefrontal cortex

August 15, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- A clue to understanding certain cognitive and mental disorders may involve two parts of the brain which were previously thought to have independent functions, according to a McGill University team of researchers ...

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Cellular roots of anxiety identified

July 26, 2017
From students stressing over exams to workers facing possible layoffs, worrying about the future is a normal and universal experience. But when people's anticipation of bad things to come starts interfering with daily life, ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LaPortaMA
5 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2014
Some people call it meditation. Some call it discipline.
Ever heard of it?
alfie_null
1 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2014
Some people call it meditation. Some call it discipline.
Ever heard of it?

If it can't be dealt with as a science, I don't want to hear of it.

How do you measure it? How do you induce it? Would you have the subjects self-inducing? That hardly sounds like a reliable method.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.