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“Look at me!” – Visuals increase attention; Now science explains why

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Brain release of chemicals related to imaging processing, activation of cells.

“Look at me!” we might say trying to involve our children. Turns out, there’s a neurochemical explanation why watching mom or dad helps kids pay more attention.

In an article published today (December 17, 2021) in the journal Scientists progress, the authors of the University of Texas at San Antonio Health Sciences Center (also called UT Health San Antonio) report that norepinephrine, a chemical fundamental to brain performance, is locally regulated in a region of the brain called visual cortex.

“Prior to our study, research suggested the possibility of local regulation of norepinephrine release, but this had never been directly demonstrated,” said lead author of the study, Martin Paukert, MD, assistant professor. of Cellular and Integrative Physiology at UT Health San Antonio. The work of the team, which included Shawn R. Gray, PhD, and Liang Ye, MD, of the Paukert Lab and Jing Yong Ye, PhD, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was supported by the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and the Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Norepinephrine is known to be involved in mindfulness. “A certain amount of this chemical must be released for optimal brain performance and attention span,” said Dr Paukert. “So if there is too much or not enough, it can affect the way we handle information. “

Medical conditions in which norepinephrine is impaired include disorders related to substance use, Alzheimer’s illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In some drug addictions, Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD, the release of norepinephrine is reduced, resulting in decreased attention. In other substance use and PTSD the level is too high.

The team’s findings also extend to cells called astrocytes that function as helper cells in the brain and central nervous system.

“When a person makes a movement, like turning their head to listen to a parent, and that is combined with visual stimulation, then more norepinephrine is released where visual information is processed,” said Dr Paukert. “Our second and equally important finding is that astrocytes can reliably sense the rate of norepinephrine release.”

They are sensitive to it, in other words. Astrocytes alter their response accordingly, which should alter brain performance.

“Understanding the release of norepinephrine, its local regulation, and the response of astrocytes may represent a mechanism by which one could improve specific sensory attention,” said Dr Paukert. Research will continue in this direction.

Reference: “The short-term potentiation of the noradrenergic terminal allows a selective integration of the sensory input modality and the state of vigilance” December 17, 2021, Scientists progress.
DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abk1378


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