Decoder predicts what breaks a monkey’s focus

"We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction," says Julio Martinez-Trujillo. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers recorded brain activity in macaques as they moved their eyes to look at objects on a computer screen while ignoring visual distractions. They found that they could predict whether a visual intrusion would distract the animals.

The signals they recorded went into a decoder running on a personal computer that 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,” says lead author Julio Martinez-Trujillo, who conducted the research while part of McGill University’s physiology department.

“We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction.”

In addition, 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.

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“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 such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia,” says Sébastien Tremblay, a doctoral student at McGill University and the first author of the paper in Neuron.

“Being able to extract and read the neuronal code from higher-level areas of the brain could also lead to important breakthroughs in the emerging field of neural prosthetics, where people who are paralyzed use their thoughts to control objects in their environment.”

Martinez-Trujillo is now at the Robarts Research Institute at Western University.

Source: McGill University