UCI study identifies what brings our senses and thoughts together | UCI News

Irvine, California, September 26, 2022 — Our ability to think, decide, remember recent events and more comes from the neocortex of our brain. Now neuroscientists at the University of California, Irvine have uncovered key aspects of the mechanisms behind these functions. Their findings could ultimately help improve treatments for certain neuropsychiatric disorders and brain injuries. Their study appears in Neuron.

Scientists have long known that the neocortex integrates what are known as feedback and feedback information flows. Anticipatory data is relayed by the sensory systems of the brain from the periphery (our senses) to the higher order areas of the neocortex. These high-level brain regions then send feedback information to refine and adjust sensory processing. This back-and-forth communication allows the brain to pay attention, retain short-term memories, and make decisions.

“A simple example is when you want to cross a busy road,” said corresponding author Gyorgy Lur, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior in the School of Biological Sciences. “There are trees, people, moving vehicles, traffic lights, signs and more. Your higher-level neocortex tells your sensory system what deserves your attention to decide when to cross.

The interaction between higher and lower level systems also allows us to remember what you saw when you glanced back and forth to gather the information. “If you didn’t have this short-term memory, you would keep looking back and never move,” he said. “In fact, if our feeds of anticipation and feedback weren’t constantly working together, we would do very little except respond in reflexes.”

Until now, scientists did not know exactly how neurons in the brain participate in these complex processes. Lur and his colleagues found that feedforward and feedback signals converge on single neurons in the parietal regions of the neocortex. The researchers also found that distinct types of cortical neurons fuse the two information streams on markedly different time scales and identified the cellular and circuit architecture that underlies these differences.

“Scientists already knew that integrating multiple senses enhances neural responses,” Lur said. “If you only see something or hear it, your reaction time is slower than when you feel it with both senses simultaneously. We have identified the underlying mechanisms that make this possible.

He noted that the data from the study suggests that the same principles apply if one flow of information is sensory and the other is cognitive.

Understanding these processes is essential for developing future treatments for neuropsychiatric conditions such as sensory processing disorders, schizophrenia, and ADHD, as well as strokes and other neocortical lesions.

Lur is a member of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, the Center for Neural Circuit Mapping, and the Center for Hearing Research at UC Irvine.

Ph.D. candidate Daniel Rindner, who performed all neural recordings and biological tissue work, was the first author of the paper. Archana Proddutur, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the lab and second author of the paper, conducted computational modeling that led to the mechanistic understanding of processes integrating sensory and cognitive information flows. Their research was supported by the Whitehall Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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