Everyday experience tells us that when we pay attention to important events in the environment, we are more accurate in perceiving and responding to those events. Our work over many years has shown that attention can powerfully influence the brain processing of attended versus ignored events. Using recordings of the electroencephalogram (EEG), and signals derived from the EEG known as event-related potentials (ERPs), in humans we have shown that sensory signals in the brain are enhanced for attended events and suppressed to those we ignore. These findings help us understand how attention helps our daily functioning, and why distracted attention, as well as disorders of attention, result in poor performance and increases in errors in everyday tasks such as driving or operating machinery, or tasks of critical importance, such as flying a commercial jet.
Our researchers use EEG, ERPs and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the functional brain anatomy of attention systems. We have learned from this research that dedicated neural circuits in the brain function like executive controllers over the momentary focus of our attention, and that damage to these systems results in severe neurological and psychiatric disorders. By understanding how the brain is controlled in healthy individuals, we can then investigate how damage, drugs or disease alters these identified brain mechanisms.
Our work using EEG and fMRI to investigate brain attention mechanisms is complimented by studies in animal models that permit the activity of individual or small groups of brain cells (neurons) to be studied in detail. With our colleagues in the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, we have been able to show that neurons in visual cortex change their patterns of activity with attention in order to improve the efficacy of information processing, and to improve the fidelity of perceptual processes. This work is critical for developing treatments for attention disorders in humans.
The laboratory investigates how disorders of attention, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), result from dysfunction in the neural mechanisms of attention. Working with clinical colleagues at the UC Davis MIND Institute, we have revealed functional changes in the brains of children with ADHD that enable a deeper understanding of the disorder. Because selective attention is a core cognitive process, elucidating attentional mechanisms in humans remains a high priority in efforts to understand, diagnose and treat psychiatric conditions that involve deficits in attention, including ADHD, autism, schizophrenia and other disorders.