Scientists have known for a long time that the brain sorts through data it receives from the five senses at all time, identifying the most important information and ignoring the rest. Now, researchers at Princeton University believe that they may have identified this region of the brain.
What this area deep within the brain does is focus on the data that are most important for controlling our behavior, and boosting out chances of survival. Details of the investigation appear in the latest issue of the top journal Science.
Researchers liken this region, called the pulvinar, to a switchboard operator. Its main responsibility is to regulate communication patterns between neural clusters that enable the brain to focus and shift attention to and from specific things, actions or people in a dynamic manner.
Even more importantly, the pulvinar ensures that multiple regions of the same cortical area – such as the visual cortex – communicate with each other about the same object or person. A consistent focus on external information is essential for making sense of the world, lead study author Yuri Saalmann says.
The expert holds an appointment as an associate research scholar with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI). He explains that this region of the brain is responsible for common occurrences, such as noticing a bus or car when crossing the street, amidst a sea of other information.
A deeper understanding about how the pulvinar works could lead to the development of new treatments for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia, the team adds. This can be attained by studying this area of the brain using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
“A fundamental problem for the brain is that there is too much information in our natural environment for it to be processed in detail at the same time. The brain instead selectively focuses on, or attends to, the people and objects most relevant to our behavior at the time and filters out the rest,” the team says.
“A persistent question in neuroscience, though, is how exactly do different brain areas synchronize so that important information isn't lost in the other stimuli flooding our brains,” Saalmann explains, adding that the new research suggests that the pulvinar is responsible for this amazing data integration.
The paper detailing the findings, entitled “The Pulvinar Regulates Information Transmission Between Cortical Areas Based on Attention Demands,” appears in the August 10 issue of the journal Science.
The investigation was made possible through the support of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Eye Institute (NEI).