The Institute for Mind and Brain held a one-day conference on the Neuroscience of
Attention on Friday, October 14, 2016. The conference featured four invited speakers as well as invited contributions by
local researchers. Presentations addressed topics on visual-spatial attention, development
of attention, executive attention and the neuropsychology of attention.
Neuroscience of Attention
Attention functions in myriad ways to build our perceptions of the world and allow
us to act on them intelligently. Cognitive neuroscientists have identified multiple
networks within the brain that coordinate attention in tasks that require a wide variety
of cognitive skills, ranging from sensory-motor coordination to high level executive
functioning. Attentional networks can be traced developmentally and disruption of
these networks can have profound effects on cognitive function. The one-day conference
on the Neuroscience of Attention invited students and faculty to consider questions
such as: How does attention coordinate inputs from different sensory modalities? What neural
structures guide attention and thought? How does attention connect action and perception?
How does attention develop and how is it impacted by health factors?
Sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Institute for Mind and Brain invited
students, faculty and other researchers in the field to participate in the one-day
Doug Munoz, Queen’s University
Understanding how humans perceive and act upon complex natural environments is one
of the most pressing challenges in neuroscience. However, the study of the neural
basis of active vision, how visual stimuli gives rise to eye movements, and how these
eye movements influence vision under diverse task conditions, has largely been restricted
to simple laboratory stimuli presented to subjects performing stereotypical tasks.
In this presentation I will highlight recent evidence contrasting neural processing
of saliency and priority in stereotypical lab tasks and natural free viewing by contrasting
responses recorded from early visual cortex and the midbrain superior colliculus.
These data show how specific features may be extracted by the visual cortex and fed
to the superior colliculus to compute a saliency map to guide orienting. I will also
highlight the role of the superior colliculus in coordinating saccade and pupil components
of the orienting response.
Scott Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles
Social attention is the process of perceiving visual features that specify conspecifics
and other animate entities, and it is vital to our ability to observe, understand,
and participate in social interactions. Research on infant perception of faces and
biological motion has revealed early-developing biases to attend to social information
that are shaped by experience. Hence a currently popular view is that innate preferences
for faces and biological motion become tuned to specific features of social content
that are present in the infant’s immediate social environment, facilitating rapid
identification and categorization of social information that is most relevant and
appropriate for social interactions. This talk will present recent and new work —
on face detection in cluttered scenes, attention to own- and other-race faces, and
perception of sex differences in biological motion — that is difficult to accommodate
by this view, and raises important questions about the role of experience in shaping
infants’ social attention. Broader implications for theories of social development
will be discussed.
John McDonald, Simon Fraser University
People are frequently confronted with potentially distracting sounds and lights in
today’s cluttered environments. Such distractors can attract attention, gain access
to limited-capacity memory systems, and disrupt performance on ongoing tasks. Observers
can deal with this sensory overload in two ways: (i) by attending to specific aspects
of the environment, such as a particular colour or a particular region of space, in
order to enhance processing of certain objects, and (ii) by actively ignoring irrelevant
objects that might otherwise be distracting. In this presentation, I will describe
some event-related potential (ERP) research that has led to a better understanding
of the neural processes underlying our abilities to attend and to deal with distraction.
I will also highlight the latest research on distraction, which shows considerable
variability across individuals in the ability to suppress irrelevant visual distractors.
Matthew Pontifex, Michigan State University
As epidemiological investigations within industrialized societies have revealed increases
in the prevalence of sedentary behaviors during childhood, a greater understanding
of the extent to which physical activity relates to brain health and cognition during
development is of increasing importance. Leveraging insights provided through recordings
of electrophysiological activity, we have examined the association and effects of
physical activity behavior and attributes as it relates to neural processes associated
with the allocation of attentional resources and action-monitoring. In ongoing research,
we have specifically focused on 1) how these processes are influenced by a lack of
chronic physical activity, 2) the effect of a single dose of physical activity on
these processes, and 3) the neurobiological mechanisms that regulate the relationship
between physical activity and these neural processes. Our results highlight the importance
of physical activity, with greater cardiovascular health relating to a greater ability
to allocate attention and modulate action monitoring processes. Further, our results
indicate a single dose of physical activity may be particular beneficial for attentional
processing in those children with poorer cognitive abilities and attention-related
impairments — such as ADHD.
Jessica Green, University of South Carolina Department of Psychology
The neural correlates of voluntary spatial attention have been well documented – frontal
and parietal lobe control processes followed by preparatory modulations of sensory
cortex, including both enhancement of the to-be-attended location and suppression
of to-be-ignored locations. There can, however, be large variation between subjects
in both behavioural and neural measures of attentional control. Based on one prominent
theory of dyslexia that postulates that reading deficits stem from abnormalities in
the attention system, we hypothesized that some of this variability may be related
to between-subject differences in reading ability. In this presentation I will discuss
my recent work showing that even in a high-functioning university student population,
variability in reading skills can account for a large portion of the differences in
basic attention processes and their neural correlates.
Troy Herter, University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science
Humans learn to perform a broad range of motor tasks, such as driving, cooking and
sports, that use skilled eye movements (visual search) to actively gather information
that guides planning and execution of skilled limb movements. Recent studies have
demonstrated that improvements in visual search contribute to motor learning, but
we have a poor understanding of the sensory, motor and cognitive processes that underlie
these improvements in visual search. In this talk, I will present evidence that improvements
in visual search and limb-motor control contribute stable increases in task performance.
I will also discuss some of the processes that underlie improvements in visual search
and how these change with aging and stroke. Finally, I will show that modifying visual
input to manipulate visual attention produces systematic changes to visual search
and task performance.
Robert Davis Moore, University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science
Concussive injuries are an increasing public health concern. Indeed, contrary to the
traditional clinical belief that concussions are transitory in nature, mounting scientific
evidence suggests that these injuries can and do lead to persistent deficits in brain
and behavioral health. Furthermore, although concussions are heterogeneous in nature,
they do appear to disproportionately influence specific aspects of higher neurocognition,
such as attention and cognitive control. Accordingly, this presentation will provide
evidence from child and adult concussion studies which illustrate the persistent,
detrimental influence of concussive injuries on multiple attention-related processes.
This presentation will also provide evidence of physiological and demographic factors
which may moderate the strength of attentional dysfunction following concussion. Lastly,
suggestions for future research will be discussed. The information presented herein
will serve as both a general introduction to concussion for interested researchers
and clinicians, as well as an in-depth look at the neuroelectric and behavioral indices
of attention in those with a history of concussion.
John Richards, University of South Carolina Department of Psychology
Sustained attention in infants represents the arousal system of the brain energizing
brain systems. Cognitive processing during sustained attention is faster, more efficient,
and represents a period of active information processing. Sustained attention affects
a wide range of cognitive processing in infants in the first year. One cognitive process
that shows dramatic development over the first year of life in infants is the processing
of faces. This includes the onset of cortically-driven familiarity, second-order configural
face processing, experienced-based brain changes, and race/species face differentiation.
We have studied infants event-related-potentials (ERPs) in responses to faces and
toys in infants from 3 to 12 months of age. The ERP changes in amplitude to faces
for the P1 and N290 components, and the face/toy distinction in the ERP increases
over this age range. This differentiation is amplified when infants are engaged in
sustained attention. The cortical source analysis of the ERP responses shows these
changes occurring in the posterior areas for the P1 and in the fusiform gyrus, and
ventral-anterior temporal areas, for the N290. The effect of sustained attention amplifies
the current density activity in these cortical areas. These results and prior work
describe the excitatory effect of sustained attention on the secondary perceptual/cognitive
areas involved in stimulus processing.