Broadening the span of attention research through a multi-modal approach

Alex Swanson, a sophomore student researcher in the Visuomotor Laboratory, analyzing brain imaging data.

Alex Swanson, a sophomore student researcher in the Visuomotor Laboratory, analyzing brain imaging data.

Associate Professor Wendy Huddleston, PhD, PT, has teamed up with other faculty and students from UW-Milwaukee and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) to form the Milwaukee Attention Group. Together, they are investigating how individual differences in attention affects performance on a variety of tasks that involve vision, hearing, and movement.

Why study attention?

The process of attention is ubiquitous, often taken for granted. Our ability to “tune in” to particular things and ideas in our daily lives is required for almost everything we do, and impairments in attention can have a negative impact on quality of life.

Huddleston, who runs the Visuomotor Laboratory in the Department of Kinesiology, Integrative Health Care & Performance unit, explained, “Neurologically, our brain maps every stimulus that we come in contact with. But when we attend to particular object or location, the signal corresponding to the desired location goes up while simultaneously the signals for all other objects in the scene goes down. Attention is the neurological equivalent to what we generally think of as focus or selection.”

Huddleston also noted that when individuals aren’t able to attend effectively to important objects in the environment, it can be difficult to live independently. “There are many reasons why a person might have trouble with attention. Many individuals who experience Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, stroke or other brain trauma often find their capacity to attend disrupted. This leaves them vulnerable when carrying out the simplest of tasks, like crossing a busy street.”

Bringing the best of the best together

Like Huddleston, collaborators Adam Greenberg, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at UWM and Ted DeYoe, PhD, professor of radiology in the Department of Radiology at MCW, each study the process of attention, but in different ways.

For their collaborative research, they received the UWM Team Collaboration Award and gathered 20 researchers from four different institutions and units in early December to think more deeply about what we know and need to know about typical and disordered attention.

In addition to the faculty collaborators, the Milwaukee Attention Group also involves student employees. Working specifically with Huddleston in the Visuomotor lab are Biomedical Sciences undergraduates Alex Swanson and Nidhi Rana. Maysam Ardehali, a PhD student from the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability (R2D2) Center, working with Professor Roger O.  Smith, the Center director, also contributes to the initiative.

A multi-modal approach

Attention is a critical cognitive mechanism implicated in a large range of disorders. To date, no complete exploration exists regarding the link between individual variation in behavior or disease, and neural function related to attentional processes.

The Milwaukee Attention Group is developing an innovative approach that will make it possible to identify common neurophysiological mechanisms across modalities (i.e., vision, hearing, etc.). This research is transformational in that it makes it possible to understand both normal human brain-behavior relations and previously unidentified links between attention and disease.

Through the pairing of behavioral experiments, Diffusion Weighted Imaging, brain modeling and functional MRI scans of healthy brains, the Milwaukee Attention Group can measure participants’ normal attentional abilities when completing various tasks. With this knowledge, the group plans to eventually expand their research to encompass abnormal or disrupted attention in order to develop protocols for improving quality of life and independence for those who experience difficulty with attention.