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    Training the Mind to Avoid Visual Distractors

    Comprehensive Ophthalmology

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    Objects that stand out from their surroundings and grab our attention can easily distract us. Now researchers report that with training, the brain can rapidly suppress distractions and allow us to efficiently reach our goals.1 Their findings bolster one side of a debate in cognitive psychology about what type of visual information captures attention, what we ignore, and how these processes happen.

    Some researchers believe that to suppress and ig­nore “distractors,” the brain needs to know about them in advance. However, this study, based on recordings of neuronal activity in the visual cortex of monkeys, demonstrates that the brain can detect a distraction in real time and then rapidly suppress it so that it won’t interfere with goal-directed behavior.

    “The findings were predicted by previous behavior and theoretical work, but given the large debate sur­rounding the topic, it was nice to see it so clearly in the neuronal responses,” said P. Christiaan Klink, PhD, at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam.

    The monkey mind observed. The researchers trained two monkeys to play a video game in which they had to select a unique shape (the target) from an array of distracting shapes. For example, they had to choose the single circle among five squares, or vice versa. One of the five nontargets had a distinct color, making it “pop out,” and the monkeys were trained to avoid this distractor and focus instead on the target.

    Staying on task. Arrays of microelectrodes were implanted in the monkeys’ brains to track visual pro­cessing. As the monkeys searched for the target shape, the researchers observed a corresponding pattern in the activity of neurons in area V4 of the visual cortex, a brain region that processes visual information relatively early after it is captured by the eye.

    The investigators found that the unpredictable “pop-out” distractor captured the monkeys’ attention, eliciting a brief enhancement of V4 activity that was then rapidly suppressed. During repeat sessions, the monkeys learned to avoid distraction and stay on task, choosing the distractor stimulus only 2% of the time.

    Implications for humans? Humans probably can be trained to reach similar performance on this specific video game, Dr. Klink said. However, this does not mean that such training would necessarily help them with very different types of distractions. Long-term, however, the research may inform neurotechnological develop­ments involved in creating visual prosthetic devices for blind patients, which is a focus of the lab. “For such neurotechnology, it might be useful to understand how the brains selects visual information for further processing,” Dr. Klink said. “With prosthetic vision, we can transfer far less visual information than with natural vision. By using selection mechanisms that are similar to those of the brain itself, we hope to make it easier for future patients to use such technology.”

    —Miriam Karmel


    1 Klink PC et al. PNAS. 2023;120(9):e2210839120.


    Relevant financial disclosures: Dr. Klink—Dutch Research Coun­cil: S; European Union: S: Friends Foundation of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience: S; Human Brain Project: S.

    For full disclosures and the disclosure key, see below.

    Full Financial Disclosures

    Dr. Breazzano DRCR Network: S; Eyepoint: S; Ocuterra: S; Ophthea: S; Oxurion: S.

    Dr. Klink Dutch Research Council: S; European Union: S; Friends Foundation of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience: S; Human Brain Project: S.

    Dr. Maturi Allegro: C,S; Allergan: C,S; Allgenesis: C; AiViva: C; Boehringer Ingelheim: S; Clearside: S; Eli Lilly: C; Dutch Ophthalmic: C; Gemini: S; Genentech: S; Graybug: S; Gyroscope: S; KalVista: S; Jaeb Center for Health Research: C; NeuroTech: C; NGM Biopharmaceuticals: S; Novartis: C; Opthea: S; Ribomic: S; Samsung Bioepis: S; Santen: S; Senju: S; ThromboGenics: S; Unity: C,S.

    Dr. Moulton NEI: S; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: S.

    Disclosure Category



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