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Pay attention - Scientists uncover basis of attention span

16 July 2008

Scientists have uncovered the chemical basis of attention span with new research published today (16 July) by the journal Nature. The reason why sometimes we have to read a page over and over before the information sinks in has been found to be caused by the need for a chemical in the brain to tell our brain cells to pay attention to something before we can take it in. Attention is crucial for perception, awareness, learning and memory.

The research has potentially significant implications not only for our understanding of how our brains work but in the development of treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit disorder.

Researchers at Newcastle University and UCL, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Wellcome Trust and Gatsby Foundation, have shown that brain cells require the presence of the neurochemical acetylcholine before we can attend to a demanding task. Acetylcholine is a natural chemical neurotransmitter which the body uses to send signals around the nervous system. Working with monkeys, the research team applied small amounts of acetylcholine before the animal took part in an exercise demanding high levels of attention. The scientists found that the neurones and receptors in the brain responded with increased activity associated with attention and that the subjects had increased awareness of the task at hand. By blocking specific acetylcholine receptors they were able to reverse the process and reduce attention in these brain cells.

Research leader Professor Alex Thiele, from Newcastle University, said: "For the first time we have been able to precisely identify the mechanism by which the brain implements a state of attention and increases awareness for important tasks.

"We all know that in life we sometimes are not paying attention to tasks or the world around us. Our research shows that for to have full attention and awareness the neurons and specific receptors in the brain require a dose of acetylcholine to get them into the correct state. When this happens correctly the brain has higher levels of attention and has increased awareness of the task an individual is attempting to solve."

The research could have important implications in the treatment of neurological conditions associated with awareness and attention. Prof Thiele said: "If these mechanisms are not working properly then, most of the time, it means we have to re-read an article or we will miss something somebody says. Many of these processes in the brain have a role in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit disorders and other attention deficits. It will require more research but I hope that this work might be able to help sufferers in the future."


Notes to editors

This research is published on 16 July by Nature as Advance Online Publication (AOP). The citation is "Acetylcholine contributes through muscarinic receptors to attentional modulation in V1", DOI: 10.1038/nature07141, J. L. Herrero, M. J. Roberts{, L. S. Delicato, M. A. Gieselmann, P. Dayan & A. Thiele.

The research has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. http://www.wellcome.ac.uk

External contact

Professor Alex Thiele, Newcastle University

tel: 0191 222 7564


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382