Is it true we have an increasingly harder time ignoring distractions as we age? Time will tell. A new study shows how we can learn to better sustain our mental focus through a simple game of practicing our ability to distinguish select sounds within progressively worse disruptions.

“This same training could be generalized to more complex stimuli and across sensory modalities — such as auditory, visual, and tactile — to broadly benefit distractor processing in diverse impaired populations needing such training,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, senior author and professor at UCSF.

In short, this research may be customized and used to help children with ADHD or adults with similar cognitive challenges.

A Face In The Crowd

Top-down modulation is a process that allows you to exert conscious control over how you perceive your environment. For instance, you walk into a crowded room with the intention of crossing it to speak to a friend standing in the corner, but along the way you see food, drinks, others calling out to you. Top-down modulation is the brain ability that allows you to focus your attention, while suppressing your response to distractions involving all of your senses, all so that you may achieve your intention. Though you use this mental skill every day, it is a complex function that requires the existence and maintenance of neural networks: reciprocal, long-range connections between multiple, distributed regions of your brain. Simply put, such focus is the result of a well-wired and functioning computer (your brain).

So how did the current study begin? A research team led by Gazzaley and Dr. Jyoti Mishra experimented as a way to develop a new training approach to help strengthen people’s ability to suppress their attention to distracting stimuli. Starting with aging lab rats, they perfected their technique and moved on to older human adults. The researchers used sounds at various frequencies as targets and distractors, with the goal of having trainees focus on the target frequencies while ignoring the distractor frequencies.

Through reinforcement feedback, trainees learned, implicitly, to identify the target tone in each session. Next, the trainees were asked to continue to identify that target tone amid progressively challenging distractor frequencies. Distractor frequencies became progressively similar to the target after trainees made correct discriminations; whenever they made incorrect selections, though, the distractor frequencies became more dissimilar. All the while, the target frequency was kept constant.

Whether human or rat, trainees' memory and attention spans improved with this experience. More importantly, brain recordings revealed that neural responses to distractors were reduced in all the trainees.

“We show that by learning to discriminate amidst progressively more challenging distractions, we can diminish distractibility in rat and human brains,” said Mishra, lead author of the study and assistant professor in neurology at UCSF. While she highlights the therapeutic potential of this brain training to improve the ability to focus, Mishra also believes the research demonstrates that the brain, even when old and seemingly less plastic, can respond to learning-based approaches that improve cognition.

Source: Mishra J, de Villers-Sidani E, Merzenich M, Gazzaley A. Adaptive Training Diminishes Distractibility in Aging across Species. Neuron. 2014.