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College of Arts and Sciences

2016 Conference

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 conference.

Featured Speakers

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 color 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.

USC Speakers

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.


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