For Release: June 27, 2013
Contact: Derik Hertel, 603-650-1211 or

Researchers Uncover Cellular Mechanisms for Attention in the Brain

Farran Briggs, PhD

Hanover, N.H.—The ability to pay attention to relevant information while ignoring distractions is a core brain function. Without the ability to focus and filter out "noise," we could not effectively interact with our environment. Despite much study of attention in the brain, the cellular mechanisms responsible for the effects of attention have remained a mystery... until now.

In a study appearing in the journal Nature, researchers from Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine and the University of California Davis studied communications between synaptically connected neurons under conditions where subjects shifted their attention toward or away from visual stimuli that activated the recorded neurons. Using this highly sensitive measure of attention's influence on neuron-to-neuron communication, they were able to demonstrate that attention operates at the level of the synapse to improve sensitivity to incoming signals, sharpen the precision of these signals, and selectively boost the transmission of attention-grabbing information while reducing the level of noisy or attention-disrupting information.

The results point to a novel mechanism by which attention shapes perception by selectively altering presynaptic weights to highlight sensory features among all the noisy sensory input.

"While our findings are consistent with other reported changes in neuronal firing rates with attention, they go far beyond such descriptions, revealing never-before tested mechanisms at the synaptic level," said study co-author Farran Briggs, PhD, assistant professor of Physiology and Neurobiology at the Geisel School of Medicine.

In addition to expanding our understanding of brain, this study could help people with attention deficits resulting from brain injury or disease, possibly leading to improved screening and new treatments.

For more information about this study, please visit

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Health's (NIH) National Eye Institute (grant #s EY18683 to F.B., EY013588 to W.M.U.) and from NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (grant # MH055714 to G.R.M.). Funding support also provided to G.R.M. and W.M.U from the National Science Foundation (grant #s BCS-0727115 and 1228535).

The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, founded in 1797, strives to improve the lives of the communities it serves through excellence in learning, discovery, and healing. The nation's fourth-oldest medical school, the Geisel School of Medicine has been home to many firsts in medical education, research and practice, including the discovery of the mechanism for how light resets biological clocks, creating the first multispecialty intensive care unit, the first comprehensive examination of U.S. health care variations (The Dartmouth Atlas), and helping establish the first Center for Health Care Delivery Science, which launched in 2010. As one of America's top medical schools, Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine is committed to training new generations of diverse health care leaders who will help solve our most vexing challenges in health care.

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