Alignment of Brain Signals and Networks Important for Shifting Focus
By Lida Tunesi
Danielle Bassett, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow, recently collaborated on a study that explores how the brain switches between types of mental tasks, a trait known as cognitive flexibility. She worked with colleagues at Drexel University, including former lab member John Medaglia, as well as Alejandro Ribeiro, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE), and Penn Arts & Science’s Sharon Thompson-Schill, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology.
Bassett, an associate professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and ESE, has previously investigated how factors like mood and fatigue affect this flexibility, and the role it plays in some types of learning.
This new study, published in Nature Human Behavior, delves into the mechanics behind these shifts in focus, exploring how transient brain signals and the brain’s stable, underlying architecture work in concert to let the mind change gears.
“The type of mathematics used to uncover this marker of cognitive flexibility in healthy adults takes into account the complex pattern of interconnectivity between different parts of the brain, and how information can travel across it,” said Bassett.
Though a hallmark of human cognition, flexible switching varies widely from person to person, and is associated with a measurable mental cost: Moving from one task to another extends the time it takes for you to respond to stimuli. For patients with neurological syndromes, this strain is even greater and can hamper someone’s ability to complete everyday tasks. Stroke victims, for instance, might have trouble making calculations or expanding their awareness while driving.
Shifts in mental focus — like viewing the forest through the trees, so to speak — are accompanied by transient changes in brain activity occurring on top of a stable, anatomical architecture of underlying white matter tracts. White matter is the brain’s highway system that connects various regions and carries nerve impulses between neurons. Until now, no single measure existed for understanding how these complex processes work together in the brain to contribute to cognitive flexibility.
“Our behavior is determined both by the way the brain is structured, and, to some extent, the way it is dynamic, or changes over time,” Medaglia said. “We wanted to find a way to study both of those things at the same time.”
Continue reading at Drexel Now.