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Penn Medicine neuroscientists identify brain mechanism that drives focus despite distractions

Key neurons in the front of the brain act as “traffic control” to manage our attention to visual stimuli
August 9, 2023

Trying to finish your homework while the big game is on TV? “Visual-movement” neurons in the front of your brain can help you stay focused, according to a new study from neuroscientists in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the study, published recently in Neuron, the scientists sought to illuminate the neural mechanism that helps the brain decide whether to focus visual attention on a rewarding task or an alluring distraction. By analyzing neuron activity in animal models as they faced this kind of attentional conflict, the researchers discovered that a pattern of coordinated activity called “beta bursts” in a set of neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC)—a section in the front of the brain responsible for motivation and rewards—appears to have a major role in keeping attention task-focused, essentially by suppressing the influence of the distracting stimulus.

Using animal models, researchers recorded how activity in the LPFC shifts while completing a task while being presented with visual distractions. The neuroscientists found strong evidence that one specific type of LPFC neurons, called visual-movement neurons, direct attention towards either the rewarding shape or the distracting one.