“The decoder was able to predict very consistently and within a few milliseconds where the macaques were covertly focusing attention even before they looked in that direction,” says Julio Martinez-Trujillo, of McGill’s Department of Physiology and the lead author of the paper. “We were also able to predict whether the monkey would be distracted by some intrusive stimulus even before the onset of that distraction.”
But what was even more interesting was that the researchers were able to manipulate the computer’s ability to “focus” by subtly manipulating the neuronal activity that had been recorded and input into the machine. In effect, by manipulating the interactions of the neurons, the researchers were able to induce “focused” and “distracted” states in the computer.
“This suggests that we are tapping into the mechanisms responsible for the quality of the attentional focus, and might shed light into the reasons why this process fails in certain neurological diseases such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia,” says Sébastien Tremblay, a doctoral student at McGill University and the first author of the paper which was published in the current edition of Neuron. “Being able to extract and read the neuronal code from higher-level areas of the brain could also lead to important breakthroughs in the emerging field of neural prosthetics, where people who are paralysed use their thoughts to control objects in their environment.”
Prof. Martinez-Trujillo is now at the Robarts Research Institute at Western University. This research was done while he was at McGill University.
To read the full article in Neuron: http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(14)01073-3