Neural Mechanisms of Attention (Mangun)

Scientists and engineers in the LABORATORY FOR THE NEURAL MECHANISMS OF ATTENTION investigate the cognitive and neural underpinnings of attention using a cognitive neuroscience approach. The laboratory's principal investigator, Professor Ron Mangun, was the founding director of the Center for Mind and Brain, and is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Research Topics


The Role of Attention in Perception

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.


How the Brain Controls Attention

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.


Cellular and Synaptic Mechanisms of Attention

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.


When Attention is Disordered

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.