March 25, 2009
Science Daily/University of California - Davis
Everyone makes an occasional error due to lack of attention. Now scientists have found a distinct electric signature in the brain which predicts that such an error is about to be made. The discovery could prove useful in a variety of applications, from developing monitoring devices that alert air traffic control operators that their attention is flagging, to devising and monitoring new strategies to help children cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"The alpha and mu rhythms are what happen when the brain runs on idle," Mazaheri explained. "Say you're sitting in a room and you close your eyes. That causes a huge alpha rhythm to rev up in the back of your head. But the second you open your eyes, it drops dramatically, because now you're looking at things and your neurons have visual input to process."
The team also found that errors triggered immediate changes in wave activity in the front region of the brain, which appeared to drive down alpha activity in the rear region, "It looks as if the brain is saying, 'Pay attention!' and then reducing the likelihood of another mistake," Mazaheri said.
It shouldn't take too many years to incorporate these findings into practical applications, Mazaheri said. For example, a wireless EEG could be deployed at an air traffic controller's station to trigger an alert when it senses that alpha activity is beginning to regularly exceed a certain level.
It could also provide new therapies for children with ADHD, he said. "Instead of watching behavior — which is an imprecise measure of attention — we can monitor these alpha waves, which tell us that attention is waning. And that can help us design therapies as well as evaluate the efficacy of various treatments, whether it's training or drugs."