Barn Owls Help Researchers Understand How The Brain Concentrates : Shots - Health News Research on the brains of barn owls suggests that attention problems like ADHD may involve a brain circuit that usually helps us ignore distractions.
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Scientists Study Barn Owls To Understand Why People With ADHD Struggle To Focus

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Scientists Study Barn Owls To Understand Why People With ADHD Struggle To Focus

Scientists Study Barn Owls To Understand Why People With ADHD Struggle To Focus

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Children with ADHD have trouble staying focused, but it's not clear why they're so vulnerable to distractions. That's why scientists are studying the brain of a predator bird that relies on intense focus to survive. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a lab at Johns Hopkins University that specializes in barn owls.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The barn owls live in a basement, and they make their nests in wooden boxes.

NAGARAJ MAHAJAN: So I'm just going to go tap the box, and hopefully one of them will fly out.

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

HAMILTON: Nagaraj Mahajan is a researcher here who works with the owls a lot, but today, they're ignoring him.

MAHAJAN: There are three birds in here, so I'm just going to grab one of them.

HAMILTON: The barn owl he grabs has other plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL SCREECHING)

HAMILTON: It also has sharp talons and a beak that can shred a small rodent, which is why Mahajan is wearing welding gloves and a face shield. Eventually, he gets his bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL SCREECHING)

HAMILTON: Mahajan hands the owl to his boss, Shreesh Mysore, who covers the bird's eyes with one hand and hugs it to his chest with the other. Mysore says barn owls have a lot in common with people when it comes to paying attention.

SHREESH MYSORE: Essentially, a brain decides at any instant what is the most important piece of information for behavior or survival. And that is the piece of information that gets attended to or, in other words, that drives behavior.

HAMILTON: For a hungry owl, that might be the sound of a wood mouse scampering through the grass. And when the owl hears that sound, it doesn't just zero in on its prey. Mysore says it tunes out all the other sights and sounds around it.

MYSORE: When we pay attention to something, we're not just focusing on the thing that we want to pay attention to. We're also ignoring all the other information in the world, right? The question is how? How does the brain actually help you ignore stuff that's not important for you?

HAMILTON: That's what Mysore's lab has been studying in these barn owls. And he says someday what he's learning might help explain attention problems in people.

MYSORE: For instance, ADHD patients have trouble ignoring even light sounds, or, you know, dim flashes of light tend to distract them from their task. Well, why? One hypothesis is that maybe the system in the brain that is supposed to be doing it, that's in charge of suppressing the distractors isn't quite working well.

HAMILTON: But scientists don't know much about this system in people. They're not even certain where it exists in the human brain. Mysore says barn owls may provide some clues. They have a predator's ability to focus, keen eyesight and hearing and brains that are organized in a way that's easy to study. So his lab is doing experiments that have an owl choose whether to focus on something it hears or something it sees. For example, the owl might be presented with bursts of noise while a computer monitor shows an object that appears to be approaching quickly.

MYSORE: And when we are presenting these stimuli, we're measuring activity in key areas in the midbrain to try and figure out how that stimulus competition is actually being implemented or carried out by neurons in the brain.

HAMILTON: Earlier experiments with birds had suggested that decisions about attention involve the midbrain, an ancient part of the brain stem. Mysore says now his team is figuring out exactly which brain cells are doing the deciding.

MYSORE: One of the coolest things has been the identification of a particular group of neurons in the midbrain that we think - we have a strong hypothesis that they are the ones that are controlling distractor suppression.

HAMILTON: In other words, the neurons that tell a brain when to ignore stuff that isn't important at that moment. Mysore says the next step is to demonstrate that mice and people also have these special neurons. And if they do, he says, it could help scientists understand how a wide range of disorders are affecting a critical system in the brain.

MYSORE: We know that deficits of attention are found in numerous psychiatric disorders, so not just ADHD or autism but schizophrenia, Parkinson's. And pretty much name a psychiatric disorder, there is some kind of attentional deficit associated with it.

HAMILTON: A deficit that just might be explained by a barn owl.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL SCREECHING)

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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