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Neural mechanisms underlying rapid modulation of spatial attention in cortex and superior colliculus

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Pay attention to brain selection processes

EU-funded researchers have developed mouse models to generate a new field of research in the field of spatial attention.

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Our senses are constantly inundated with information, however, at any given moment only a small fraction of this is relevant for taking action. Thus our brains must apply what is known as selection process attention to swiftly identify critical input and use it to guide vital responses. Attention is therefore central to sensory processing and vital to an organism’s survival. Moreover, these changes in information selection occur extremely rapidly in the brain. The SPATIAL ATTENTION (Neural mechanisms underlying rapid modulation of spatial attention in cortex and superior colliculus) project was established to understand the cellular mechanisms driving the selection process. Researchers developed the first spatial attention task in mice and used this animal model to dissect the microcircuits and synaptic mechanisms that mediate these rapid changes in sensory processing. The aim was to show new fundamental principles controlling rapid changes sensory information processing in the brain. In addition, the project set out to determine the neural mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and superior colliculus (SC) responsible for the rapid routing of sensory information during spatial attention. Behaviour tasks were designed and implemented using Matlab, Psychophysics toolbox and RT-LINUX. At the beginning of each trial an auditory cue instructed the mice whether to report a change in luminescence in either their upper or lower field of vision (hemifield). The mice also learned to initiate and control visual cues on a monitor by running on a treadmill, which engaged the animal in an immersive environment similar to a video game. The mice moved the video cue to a location on either the upper or lower hemifield. A novel surgical technique was also developed to image the SC. This used laser cut custom made polybicarbonate pyramid shaped optical spacers to delicately displace the central sinus and make the SC accessible to imaging. Results from SPATIAL ATTENTION demonstrated that mice can learn to distinguish between distinct stimuli at different spatial locations. Furthermore, they can quickly alternate motor actions according to spatial location and an auditory cue. By combining these sophisticated behavioural assays with state-of-the-art techniques in optogenetics and imaging SPATIAL ATTENTION has placed itself at the forefront of systems neuroscience research.


Mouse model, spatial attention, selection process attention, prefrontal, cortex, superior colliculus, Matlab, Psychophysics toolbox, RT-LINUX, hemifield, polybicarbonate

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