Although the ability to sustain attention varies widely from person to person, characterizing these individual differences has been traditionally difficult to measure. A group of neuroscientists at Yale University took a novel approach to understanding the characteristics of mental stamina. Previously they had established that every person’s pattern of brain connectivity is unique, so they took that approach one step further to see if these patterns could provide a new way to measure each person’s attention characteristics. More specifically, connectivity patterns are synchronous activity observed across distinct parts of their brain, the significance of which is being supported by neuroscience showing that it’s actually how the brain interacts with itself that is the key in cognitive performance.
The researchers gave 25 participants a continuous attention task, which involved recognizing certain images presented in a long sequence, and then responding to them, or inhibiting responses to them. Each task would last more than 30 minutes. This provided a sustained attention measure based on recognition and response accuracy. During the test detailed maps of continuous brain activity were recorded across 268 distinct brain regions. Analysis of this data showed how functionally connected each region was with every other region.
The results revealed several hundred connectivity profiles specifically related to the task performance, and the nature of these profiles provided significant predictions of how well people performed. Perhaps more interestingly, they also analyzed brains scans of the participants when in a resting state, which was also predictive (though less so than when active), and more specifically it could reveal characteristics of ADHD. Fascinatingly, this connectivity signature approach suggests potential to assess attentional ability without any actual testing being performed.
This is a new approach focused on one aspect of intelligence, but it could evolve into a multi-faceted technique for identifying wider cognitive functions as well as conditions of cognitive impairments, so it will certainly be interesting to follow this neuroscience domain. It also has potential for revealing the effects of NeuroTracker training, which even though it is a visual based task, has been shown to improve abilities across many different regions of brain function – it may also be possible to see if training changes a person’s connectivity signature.
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