The claustrum supports resilience to distraction - Dr. Ami Citri


In Brief:
The world we live in is dense with sensory stimulation, yet we largely manage to remain resilience to these distractors and achieve our goals. A new study from the Hebrew University finds that this capacity is mediated by the claustrum, a mysterious thin sheet of neurons comprising the brain’s most vastly connected structure. This discovery could have implications for diagnosis and therapy of ADHD and other psychiatric disorders of attention.

In more detail:
A barrage of information constantly assaults our senses, of which only a fraction is relevant at any given point in time. How do we remain resilient in the face of all these potential distractors, maintaining goal-directed behavior? Consider a young mother taking her children at the mall – how is it that she can maintain her attention to her children, making sure she does not lose them, when she is surrounded by all the sensory information that is assaulting her?
New research from the Hebrew University has identified a role for the claustrum in supporting resilience to distraction, a central aspect of selective attention. This mysterious brain region, a thin sheet of neurons located under the cortex, has been famously suggested to be the location where the conscious experience arises. However, until now, no-one has been able to directly study the role of this brain structure, because of its unique structure.
Working with mice, the team, spearheaded by PhD students Gal Atlan, Anna Terem and Noa Peretz-Rivlin, in the lab of Dr. Ami Citri at the Hebrew University, identified a unique mode of genetic access to neurons of the claustrum, supporting the first investigation the function of this structure.
They found that activity of the claustrum was essential to enable mice to perform an attention-demanding task in the presence of a distracting stimulus. To this end, they utilized two tasks in mice. In the first task, mice had to wait patiently for the presentation of a very short visual cue, informing them of the identity of a port at which they would be given the opportunity to drink water. Mice, even those in which the claustrum had been inhibited, learned this task efficiently. However, mice, whose claustrum had been inhibited, were selectively sensitive to the addition of a distracting sound (a short segment of the song Pluto, by Bjork).
In a second task, the investigators addressed the role of the claustrum in the behavior of mommy mice, which will naturally retrieve their pups to their nest if they are left in an open area (remember the example of the mother in a mall?). The investigators took the pups away from young mice mothers, returning them one by one. Mother mice, even those whose claustrum was deficient, successfully retrieved the pups back to the nest. However, with Bjork in the background, the performance of claustral-deficient mommy mice was severely disrupted. Thus, the investigators concluded that the activity of the claustrum is crucial to enable mice to maintain attention to the task at hand, and remain resilient to the presentation of a distractor.
This study has implications for the diagnosis and therapy of the myriad of brain disorders that involve disruptions of attention. These obviously include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as psychotic disorders, in which hallucinations and delusions occur. Indeed, the region of the claustrum has been observed to be hyperactive in patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and temporary lesions of the claustrum have been associated with lapses in attention, as well as disrupted communication and hallucinations.

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