Owls shed light on how we focus on what’s important | Digital Science

The finding in barn owls likely applies to all animals, including humans, the researchers say. It offers potential new insight into what goes wrong in the brain with diseases like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“There are a million things out there in the world bombarding our eyes, our ears, our skin, and other sensory organs. Of all of those things, what particular piece of information do we most need to pay attention to at any instant to drive our behavior?” says study coauthor Shreesh Mysore, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

“Our work provides a really beautiful answer to how the brain solves a key component of that problem,” Mysore says.

Meet me in the midbrain

Despite studying the forebrain of animals for decades, scientists hadn't found a good answer to the question of how the brain decides what to on and what to ignore. The researchers decided instead to look at the midbrain, an evolutionarily older part of the brain in animals from fish and birds to humans and other mammals.

“All animals have a need to pay attention to the thing that might impact our survival, but we don't all have a highly developed forebrain,” says Mysore.

The researchers chose owls to study in part because they have sharp vision and acute hearing. But the researchers also knew that owls, like all birds, have a midbrain organized in a way that makes it relatively easy to track the activity of specific neurons.

The researchers showed 15 owls visual stimuli on a monitor while measuring the activity of individual neurons in their midbrains.

What they found was puzzling and unexpected. Although individual neurons usually encode visual space topographically, meaning neighboring neurons encode the spaces for neighboring parts of the world, here they found single neurons responding to several pockets of locations, sometimes very far apart.

Sudoku-style organization?

To find out why these neurons were doubling and even tripling up, lead author Nagaraj Mahajan, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins, designed a model.

He reasoned that if the neurons needed to signal the most important location in the world no matter where visual input was coming from, the only possible way they could encode space while keeping metabolic and wiring costs in check was to have fewer neurons than locations in the world, with each neuron encoding multiple disparate locations. The real owl brain matched these computational predictions almost perfectly.

When they counted the midbrain neurons, there were 40 percent fewer of them than possible locations. And a combinatorial principle organized locations that individual neurons encoded, much like a Sudoku puzzle solution.

“This gives us an answer for the first time about how the brain actually solves the problem of selection at all possible locations,” Mysore says. “What we have now is a satisfying answer for a problem that is both fundamental and universal. There is promise that the insights from this study could generalize very well all the way up to humans.”

The team hopes that with this understanding of how the brain solves the attention at the neural level, it could be possible to make informed predictions about what goes wrong in disorders like ADHD.

“Our thinking is that these midbrain neurons might be an important key to the puzzle of that inability to focus,” Mysore says. “This is basic research but it's building ideas that can eventually be tested in patients and, if we're lucky, can help us come up with therapeutics.”

The research appears in the journal Cell Reports. The National Institutes of Health paid for the research.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Original Study DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.10.022
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