Same Parts Of Brain Move Eyes And Shift Attention

October 23, 1998

St. Louis, Oct. 19, 1998-- If you've ever tried to sneak a peak at someone without them knowing, you may be surprised to learn that the parts of the brain that control eye movements are the same as those that shift attention.

Unlike a camera, which records everything it sees, the brain can focus on one part of an image, as when you look into someone's eyes and ignore their other facial features. Scientists call this 'visual attention.'

"The relationship of visual attention to eye movements is controversial," says Maurizio Corbetta, M.D., assistant professor of neurology, radiology and neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Behavioral data suggest that you can keep your eyes very steady while moving your attention around, so some people have predicted that different parts of the brain are used in the two tasks. But other behavioral data suggest that the two processes are functionally linked. Our imaging data demonstrate that visual attention and eye movement systems share the same areas of the brain and probably use similar neural mechanisms."

Corbetta and colleagues report their results in the October issue of Neuron. They determined which parts of the brain became active when subjects fixed their gaze on a particular spot but paid attention to their peripheral field of vision. They also imaged the brain while the subjects moved their eyes across their field of view. Therefore they were able to directly compare attention shifts with eye movements.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to obtain the images. Lying in the scanner, six volunteers viewed a row of boxes on a computer screen. In the 'shifting attention' task, they fixed their gaze on the center of the display while shifting their attention to each of the boxes left of center to detect a visual stimulus ( a star ) in a box. In the 'eye movement' task, the subjects moved their eyes sequentially from one box to another, center to left, to detect the star.

The images revealed which parts of the brain were active during each task. To get a better view, the researchers superimposed the data on flattened maps of the brain. Made by David C. Van Essen, Ph.D., the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of anatomy and neurobiology, and Heather A. Drury, research scientist of neurobiology, these 2-D maps show regions of the brain that normally are hidden in folds of tissue.

The researchers mapped regions that became active during the 'shifting attention' task in red. They mapped regions that became active during the 'eye movement' task in green. Then they superimposed the two maps to show the common areas in yellow. Surprisingly, 60 percent to 80 percent of the activated regions were yellow. They were in the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes of the brain.

"Such a tight overlap between attention and eye movements was a little surprising," says Gordon L. Shulman, Ph.D., research scientist of neurology and psychology. "It suggests that common processes are involved in moving the eyes and shifting attention."

In light of this finding, Corbetta speculates that eye movements and attention may not have been independent in early mammals. "But in primates, there may have been the need to segregate direction of gaze from attention in space. That would allow you, for example, to pay attention to the dominant male in your group without looking directly at him."

Corbetta M, Akbudak E, Conturo TE, Snyder AZ, Ollinger JM, Drury HA, Linenweber MR, Petersen SE, Raichle ME, Van Essen DC, Shulman GL. A common network of functional areas for attention and eye movements. Neuron, Oct. 1998.

Grants from the NIH, NASA and the Charles A. Dana Foundation supported this study.
-end-


Washington University School of Medicine

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.