ACA4: Selective attention, short-term memory and the parietal lobe

Lead Research Organisation: MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit


Brain scanners using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) can show which regions of the brain are recruited by any given task. Cognitive neuroscience aims to use this to piece together an understanding of how mental functions are implemented in the brain. For example, some regions in a part of the brain on the top and at the back, the parietal lobe, are involved in visual perception, imagery and short-term memory. Other regions are involved in selective attention focussing on a particular part of the visual scene that is of interest and others more generally involved in complex tasks, such as arithmetic or hard mental problems. This programme will develop understanding of the parietal cortex and the mental functions that recruit it. Building understanding of how healthy brains function will make it easier for clinicians to understand how mental processes are disrupted when brains are damaged through stroke, accident or degenerative disease. This will help inform rehabilitation advice and strategies that are used to help people reduce or deal with their disabilities following brain damage. An additional aim of this programme is to develop new neuroimaging methods to reveal more about the brains operation, for use in science and clinical practice.

Technical Summary

Selection and short-term memory dramatically shape perception, and when disrupted the results can be dramatic and disabling. Perceptual systems impose structure upon the tremendous quantity of chaotic confusing clutter that arrives from the environment, the important parts are selected, and a stable representation of them formed in short-term memory. In some ways, performance is surprisingly constrained, even in the healthy brain. Attention, short-term memory, and other cognitive processes have a limited span of only three or four objects at any one time. The understanding of this bottleneck in human cognition as an important question, and one that will be the focus of this programme. An investigation of these cognitive processes and their capacity limits is intertwined with the overarching neural theme of investigation of the posterior parietal lobe. Understanding this part of the brain also presents an intriguing and important problem for cognitive neuroscience. It is recruited by many tasks, but its function is often generalised in a broad way (e.g., attention, spatial, vision-for-action), which for such a substantial portion of cortex is likely to be of limited use. Instead, it is more productive to partition it into distinct functional regions, a strategy that has met with success in both humans (Simon et al, 2001; Rushworth et al, 2006; Cusack & Owen, 2008) and non-human primates (Van Essen, 2004). This programme will continue to use new techniques to parcellate the parietal cortex into functional subdivisions, and then FMRI to understand the function of each of these parts. A particular emphasis will be given to methods that allow the distinction of more finely differentiated neural states, using machine learning pattern analysis techniques to characterise the neural state within brain regions. This will be combined with real-time iterative search techniques that allow FMRI experiments with many possible outcomes to be run in a practical time period.


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Description Research Project Grant
Amount £249,999 (GBP)
Funding ID RPG-297 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2011 
End 08/2014
Description Wellcome Trust Project Grant (Probing visual short-term memory representations with dynamically adaptive imaging)
Amount £183,742 (GBP)
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2010 
End 08/2013
Title Real time MRI 
Description My laboratory set up real-time MRI at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2010 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The tool was also installed at: Charite Hospital, Berlin, Germany Unversity of South Carolina, Columbia, USA 
Title Scanner noise cancellation 
Description System for canceling sound from MRI recordings 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2006 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Many users 
Title automatic analysis 
Description System for analysing MRI data 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2008 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact More than 100 users. 
Description Robust three-dimensional phase unwrapping software for phase contrast Magnetic Resonance Imaging 
Organisation Loughborough University
Department Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of MRI data and application for algorithms.
Collaborator Contribution Development of algorithms.
Impact Since 2006: Salfity, M. F., Ruiz, P. D., Huntley, J. M., Graves, M. J., Cusack, R., & Beauregard, D. A. (2006). Branch cut surface placement for unwrapping of undersampled three-dimensional phase data: application to magnetic resonance imaging arterial flow mapping. Applied Optics, 45(12), 2711-2722. Salfity, M. F., Huntley, J. M., Graves, M. J., Marklund, O., Cusack, R., & Beauregard, D. A. (2006). Extending the dynamic range of phase contrast magnetic resonance velocity imaging using advanced higher-dimensional phase unwrapping algorithms. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface / the Royal Society, 3(8), 415-427. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2005.0096.
Company Name Cambridge Neuroimaging 
Year Established 2008 
Impact About to launch.
Description Inside Incredible Athletes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participated in Channel 4 TV programme, "Inside Incredible Athletes". Scanned a member of the UK blind football team.

Received many enthusiastic comments. Was asked to participate in further programme for Japanese TV, but declined
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
Description Royal Society Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Exhibition in London attended by Queen and other members of royal family.

Publicity for MRC.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010