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Attention Therapy

A BBC Journalist with severe attention deficits of various undiagnosed kinds wrote an interesting piece recently about some augmented cognition coming out of the Boston Attention and Learning Lab.

I am about to be zapped in the head with an electromagnet, once a second, for eight minutes… I feel faintly ridiculous wearing a tight headband with what looks like a coat hook on the top. “All you need to do is relax,” says Mike Esterman, the researcher about to zap me. That’s easy for him to say – he’s holding the magnet.

First a little background for those of you who don’t follow cognitive and behavioral neuroscience too closely. I can’t help myself, I am a bit of a brain science nerd, but with a careful screen to weed out the hype (except maybe my own, for example here).

  • We have a salience network that is in charge of monitoring the sensory environment to see what warrants attention. This is largely unconscious and doesn’t store anything for later.
  • We have a default network that manages our internal thoughts. Should I plan for later, reminisce about the past, imagine what others might be doing or thinking, daydream about fantasy worlds? That kind of thing.
  • We have an attention network that decides which of these is most important at the moment. Is there anything out there worth looking at, or should I ignore it and daydream, or should I look for something interesting out there because I don’t feel like daydreaming? That kind of thing.

Then we have several brain areas that mediate these attentional processes:

  • We link everything (or at least most things) with an emotional tag.
  • We link everything with a value tag.
  • We link everything with a risk tag.
  • These all get reactivated when we bring them to mind later.

We also have individual differences:

  • Some people’s attention is more influenced by emotion in general or specific emotions in particular than the population average.
  • Some people’s attention is more influenced by valuation than the population average.
  • Some people are more risk averse or risk tolerant or even risk seeking than the population average.

So if any of these are in the extreme areas of the distribution, you can experience challenges of different kinds. Sorry to be vague, but as I said earlier, I try to avoid the hype. We still don’t understand all of these processes very deeply or precisely.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have enough predictive validity to do something with what little we know. That is what the BBC article is about and what Boston Attention and Learning Lab is trying to do.

Someone with an attention problem goes into an MRI machine where they engage in some attention demanding tasks. The brain areas that are active are mapped and compared to population averages to see how the pattern compares. The diagnostic ability is still pretty generic, but this could identify what areas are way off. If you have a little trouble concentrating, this probably isn’t going to do you any good. But they are looking at treatments for people with PTSD, ADHD, and other more extreme attention disorders.

The treatment is also an emerging technology being used also by others – magnetic stimulation. The researchers admit that we don’t yet know how to boost specific areas. But we can “zap” (journalists term, not mine) the other areas to fatigue them and force the target areas into greater participation. Repetition can build some connectivity strength in those areas. At least the researchers hope so.

They have some evidence that this can be effective for people with significant deficits. Time will tell if they can refine and hone the process more precisely. At the moment, patients need a “zap” every couple of weeks and can benefit from mental exercises in between treatments that target the specific deficits that the patient is working on.

But it cannot create super-attenders out of the rest of us (like some brain training companies claim, unfortunately).

You can read more of the details if you go to the linked BBC article and click through to some of the original research from the Boston Attention Lab researchers. What I would like to know today, though is:

Does this scare you or excite you?
Do you tut tut and doubt it will ever work?
Are you curious about how it works?

Let us know in the comments.

Image credit: Marlan Beck

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