MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Michael M. Halassa, MD, PhD, Assistant professor
Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Physiology
The Neuroscience Institute Depts. of Psychitatry
Langone Medical Center
New York, NY 10016
Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Halassa: Attention is a vital aspect of our daily life and our minds are not merely a reflection of the outside world, but rather a result of careful selection of inputs that are relevant. In fact, if we indiscriminately open up our senses to what’s out there, we would be totally overwhelmed. Selecting relevant inputs and suppressing distractors is what we call attention, and as humans we are able to attend in a highly intentional manner. Meaning, we choose what to pay attention to, and we do so based on context. If you’re driving and getting directions from your GPS, you’ll be intentionally splitting your attention between your vision and hearing. Now, in one context, you might have just updated the GPS software, so you know it’s reliable; this would allow you to intentionally pay attention more to the voice coming from the GPS. In another context, the GPS software may be outdated making voice instructions unreliable. This context would prompt you to direct your attention more towards using visual navigation cues and less to the GPS voice. How the brain intentionally and dynamically directs attention based context is unknown.
The main strength of our study is that we were able to study context-dependent attention in mice. Mice are unique models because they provide genetic tools to study brain circuits. Meaning, we can turn circuits on and off very precisely in the mouse, and in a way we cannot do in other experimental animals. The inability to do these types of manipulations has been the major roadblock for progress in understanding what brain circuits mediate attention and its intentional allocation.
Because we couldn’t train mice to drive and listen to the GPS, we decided to do something much simpler. Based on context (the type of background noise in the experimental enclosure), a mouse had to select between conflicting visual and auditory stimuli in order to retrieve a milk reward. Mice love milk; it turns out, and will work tirelessly to do well on getting it. Each trial, the mouse is told ‘you need to pick the light flash’ or ‘you need to pick the auditory sweep’; these stimuli appeared on either side of the mouse randomly so the animal really had to pay attention in order to get its reward. It also had to take the context into account. We found that mice did this task, and as humans would do, they were reliant on the prefrontal cortex for determining the appropriate context. The major finding was that the prefrontal cortex changed the sensitivity of the brain to incoming stimuli (meaning, made the visual stimulus brighter when the mouse cared about vision and made the auditory stimulus louder when the mouse cared about hearing), by influencing activity in the thalamus. The thalamus is the major early relay station in the brain. The prefrontal cortex does that by instructing the brain’s switchboard, known as the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) to control how much visual or auditory information the thalamus was letting through. So in a sense, we discovered that executive function, represented by the prefrontal cortex, can talk to ‘attentional filters’ in the thalamus to determine what ultimately is selected from the outside environment to build our internal world.