We study the cognitive and neural mechanisms of attention as well as the potential for enhancing attention abilities through cognitive training. To gain insights from multiple perspectives, we perform behavioral, neuroimaging (functional MRI), and cognitive training experiments in healthy subjects and disordered populations (ie hemispatial neglect, TBI/PTSD, prosopagnosia). Click the topics on the left for more info.

One critical component of cognitive control is sustaining one’s state of attention on task relevant information and ignoring distraction. Despite our (generally) sincere efforts to stay on task, such as when we are driving or reading, we all know what it feels like to lose focus on what we are doing. Our lab uses behavioral measures and fMRI to investigate the neurocognitive processes that underlie attention fluctuations so that we may better understand why and how people stray off task and get distracted. In addition, we are interested in how attentional focus is influenced by stress and anxiety (e.g. PTSD), advanced age, as well as focal brain injuries.

External stimuli, such as colorful billboards and blaring car horns, can capture attention, even when they are irrelevant to our current goals. Under some circumstances, our top-down control processes can override attention capture by certain distracting or irrelevant stimuli. Current projects in the lab employ visual search and continuous performance tasks with task-irrelevant stimuli to further study the cognitive and neural processes by which people resist, or fail to resist, attention capture or visually distracting information.

Attentional lapses
When our internally focused thoughts divert us from the task at hand, we are mind wandering. Everyday examples include reading several paragraphs without being able to recall what you read, or missing your exit while driving. These cognitive failures often occur when performing continuous, and often repetitive or mundane tasks. Despite its prevalence in our daily lives, little is known about the neural processes that initiate and underlie mind wandering. Our lab uses behavioral measures and fMRI data from continuous performance tasks to investigate these and related questions. We are also interested in how these attentional lapses are influenced by fatigue and sleep.

Attention is one of the fundamental cognitive processes upon which more sophisticated ones rely. Throughout our day, we are constantly challenged to stay focused and prevent the intrusion of outside information. While it is a challenge for everyone, many people especially find staying focused rather difficult. Clinical populations, such as those with ADHD, neglect, or PTSD/TBI, often struggle with maintaining and sustaining focused attention.

To train attention, we employ a simple, computer-based training program that trains alertness, called Tonic and Phasic Alertness Training (TAPAT). Tonic alertness refers to our ongoing state of ‘readiness’, while phasic alertness refers to our ability to rapidly change our attention in response to a new event. Through training both aspects of alertness, we hope to promote an optimal state of attention that can lead to functional improvement in our participants’ life. Our lab is focused on applying this training program to clinical populations, as well as understanding the mechanisms that underlie the training itself.

Hemispatial neglect is a troubling disorder, often seen as a consequence of a stroke. People with hemispatial neglect often present with problems attending to one side of their body and parts of objects. In addition to these spatial symptoms, research suggests that neglect patients also have problems in attention as well. Research from our lab suggest that TAPAT training may be helpful in improving not only attention problems, but also the spatial attention symptoms as well.

Individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) often show marked problems in attention. We are interested in whether TAPAT can lead to functional improvements. Furthermore, we are exploring the relationship between sleep and PTSD severity. Using a device to measure sleep quality, our lab is investigating the effectiveness of combined TAPAT training and cognitive processing therapy.

Everyday, we rely on our face recognition abilities to help us recognize the people we know and allow us to function smoothly, no matter where we are. Some individuals, however, have a condition known as prosopagnosia that can impair facial recognition. While sometimes seen after a stroke or brain surgery, prosopagnosia is also a disorder that with which one may be born. Individuals with either developmental or acquired prosopagnosia experience difficulty remembering people, even ones they have encountered many times. They may also have trouble remembering family members or co-workers (especially outside of their typical setting) and often have difficulty following characters in a movie.

Using a web-based training program, we have been able to improve face recognizing abilities. Over the course of thousands of trials, we train participants to classify faces based on differences in height of certain facial features. We are interested in the cognitive mechanisms that drive the improvement, for which groups the training works best, and ways to improve the program itself.