Jyoti Mishra, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the UCSF School of Medicine.

Jyoti Mishra, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the UCSF School of Medicine.

Research from scientists at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) explores why our brains find it increasingly difficult to ignore distractions as we age, and what we can do about it. According to a recent research study, published online in the November 20, 2014 edition of the Cell Press journal Neuron, UCSF researchers found that by learning to make discriminations of a sound amidst progressively more disruptive distractions, aging adults can diminish their distractibility. The researchers believe that strategies used to help retrain the aging mind might also help children with attention deficits, or individuals with other mental challenges.

To address the problem of distractibility, or the inability to sustain focus on a goal, the UCSF research team developed a training approach designed to help strengthen individuals’ ability to suppress their attention to distracting stimuli. The investigators used sounds at various frequencies as targets and distractors, with the goal of having trainees focus on the target frequencies while ignoring the distractor frequencies.

In both aged rats and older humans, trainees implicitly 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. Distractor frequencies were progressively made more similar to the target after trainees made correct discriminations, or they were made more dissimilar after incorrect discriminations. All the while, the target frequency was kept constant.

Using Sound to Retrain the Aging Brain to Sustain Focus

The research study reveals that in both rats and humans, training led to a reduction in 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 [sounds] amidst progressively more challenging distractions, we can diminish distractibility in rat and human brains,” said lead author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, assistant professor of neurology in the UCSF School of Medicine.

According to the study, the same type of training could be generalized to more complex stimuli and across sensory modalities—such as auditory, visual, and tactile—to benefit distractor processing in diverse impaired populations needing to address problems related to attention deficits. In addition to highlighting the therapeutic potential of this type of brain training to improve our ability to focus with age, the study also shows that even in the aged adult, the brain is responsive to learning-based approaches that can improve cognition.

Source: Cell Press, and University of California at San Francisco