A research team at Newcastle University lead by Alex Thiele has recently expanding what is known about brain functioning when a person is focusing or concentrating on a task. The research was published in the journal Neuron.

The research team set out to determine exactly what the brain is doing when it is focusing, down to the chemical reactions taking place. This study builds on the team’s previous work in the neuroscience of concentration, in which they learned that the intensity of responses in the brain is governed by the brain chemical acetylcholine, which is a type of neurotransmitter found in the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Thiele, professor of visual neuroscience, compares the brain chemistry behind concentration to someone speaking to a group of people.  “When you communicate with others, you can make yourself better heard by speaking louder or by speaking more clearly. Neurons appear to do similar things when we’re paying attention. They send their message more intensely to their partners, which compares to speaking louder. But more importantly, they also increase the fidelity of their message, which compares to speaking more clearly.”

Their previous research showed that acetylcholine is responsible for the intensity of the responses, or to continue the metaphor, how loud someone is speaking, but this new study focused on what affects the fidelity of the message.

They discovered that the clarity of the message involves a different reaction entirely: a pairing of glutamate (an amino acid) and NMDA receptors (a glutamate receptor that controls synaptic plasticity and memory functions).

This research has the potential to affect treatment for disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, or anything that results in decreased ability to concentrate. Now that scientists understand what controls both the “volume” and “clarity” of brain messages, they can begin to search for ways to amplify them and boost concentrative powers.

This study was funded by Wellcome Trust and BBSRC.