Disruptive sounds help aging brain ignore distractions

November 26, 2014

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As we age, we have an increasingly harder time ignoring distractions. But by learning to discriminate a sound amidst progressively more disruptive distractions, we can diminish our distractibility, new research in Cell Press journal Neuron reveals.

A similar strategy might also help children with attention deficits or individuals with other mental challenges.

Distractibility (the inability to sustain focus on a goal due to attention to irrelevant stimuli) can have a negative effect on basic daily activities, and is a hallmark of the aging mind.

Where were we? Oh, right, the research. To address the problem, a team led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco used sounds at various frequencies as targets along with distractors, with the goal of having trainees focus on the target frequencies while ignoring the distractor frequencies.

The training

In both aged rats and older humans, trainees learned to identify the target tone in each training session through reinforcement feedback, and then they had to continue to correctly identify that target tone amidst progressively more challenging distractor frequencies. In both rats and humans, training led to diminished distraction-related errors, and trainees’ memory and attention spans improved. Also, electrophysiological brain recordings in both rats and humans revealed that neural responses to distractors were reduced.

“We show that by learning to discriminate amidst progressively more challenging distractions, we can diminish distractibility in rat and human brains,” says lead author Dr. Jyoti Mishra.

The approach could also be modified to help individuals struggling with a variety of distractions. “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,” says senior author Dr. Adam Gazzaley.

In addition to highlighting the therapeutic potential of this type of brain training to improve our ability to focus with age, it also shows that even in the aged adult, the brain is responsive to learning-based approaches that can improve cognition.

Congrats if you read this without any distractions. …

Video abstract (credit: Cell Press Neuron)

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Abstract of Neuron paper

Aging is associated with deficits in the ability to ignore distractions, which has not yet been remediated by any neurotherapeutic approach. Here, in parallel auditory experiments with older rats and humans, we evaluated a targeted cognitive training approach that adaptively manipulated distractor challenge. Training resulted in enhanced discrimination abilities in the setting of irrelevant information in both species that was driven by selectively diminished distraction-related errors. Neural responses to distractors in auditory cortex were selectively reduced in both species, mimicking the behavioral effects. Sensory receptive fields in trained rats exhibited improved spectral and spatial selectivity. Frontal theta measures of top-down engagement with distractors were selectively restrained in trained humans. Finally, training gains generalized to group and individual level benefits in aspects of working memory and sustained attention. Thus, we demonstrate converging cross-species evidence for training-induced selective plasticity of distractor processing at multiple neural scales, benefitting distractor suppression and cognitive control.