Staying focused is not down to willpower, but some tiny neurons

While completing a task with other distractions can seem like it’s a battle of willpower, scientists have discovered how it’s not you but your brain that keeps you on the right track. Or at least it tries to.

For the first time, neuroscientists in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered how “visual movement” neurons positioned at the front of our brains are able to steer us in the right direction to focus on completing a necessary task, no matter how alluring the short-term distractions are.

“Our research suggests that while all brains have the ability to focus on a rewarding task and filter out distractions, some are better at it than others,” said senior author Bijan Pesaran, professor of Neurosurgery at Penn Medicine. “By understanding how our brains process rewarding stimuli, we hope to be able to also understand failures to do so in a variety of cognitive and psychiatric disorders, including attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

In an animal model, scientists found that a set of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain that drives motivation and rewards – fires up to keep focus on the main task and block out other distracting stimuli.

This coordinated neuronal activity, or “beta bursts” in “top-down” cognitive function, appears to be the key mechanism that enables humans and large mammals (including many primates) to tune out ‘noise’ to complete important tasks.

“This suggests to us that the beta bursts originate in a network of visual-movement neurons, and act as ‘traffic directors’ for the neurons that process different visual stimuli,” said first author Agrita Dubey, a researcher in the Pesaran laboratory. “It also suggests that focusing on a rewarding task takes a great deal of energy, and that it may be something that can be improved, especially in individuals with attention deficits.”

While preliminary, this study is a huge step forward in understanding how our brains help us prioritize tasks. It may also give insight into how to better target focus issues with neurodiverse brains.

The research was published in the journal Neuron.

Source: University of Pennsylvania 

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