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Learning to control brain activity improves visual sensitivity

5 December 2012

Training eople to control their own brain activity can enhance their visual sensitivity, according to a new study. This non-invasive ‘neurofeedback’ approach could one day be used to improve brain function in patients with abnormal patterns of activity, for example after a stroke.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL used non-invasive, real-time brain imaging that enabled participants to watch their own brain activity on a screen, a technique known as neurofeedback. During the training phase, they were asked to try to increase activity in the area of the brain that processes visual information, the visual cortex, by imagining images and observing how their brains responded.

After the training phase, the participants' visual perception was tested using a new task that required them to detect very subtle changes in the contrast of an image. When they were asked to repeat this task while clamping brain activity in the visual cortex at high levels, those who had successfully learned to control their brain activity could improve their ability to detect even very small changes in contrast.

This improved performance was only observed when participants were exercising control over their brain activity.

Lead author Dr Frank Scharnowski, who is now based at the University of Geneva, explains: "We've shown that we can train people to manipulate their own brain activity and improve their visual sensitivity, without surgery and without drugs."

In the past, researchers have used recordings of electrical activity in the brain to train people on various tasks, including cutting their reaction times, altering their emotional responses and even improving their musical performance. In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to provide the volunteers with real-time feedback on brain activity. The advantage of this technique is that you can see exactly where in the brain the training is having an effect, so you can target the training to particular brain areas that are responsible for specific tasks.

"The next step is to test this approach in the clinic to see whether we can offer any benefit to patients, for example to stroke patients who may have problems with perception, even though there is no damage to their vision," adds Dr Scharnowski.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Swiss National Science Foundation and the European Union, is published online today in the 'Journal of Neuroscience'.

Image: Functional MRI scans showing visual cortex activity before (top row) and after (bottom row) neurofeedback training. Credit: F Scharnowski

Reference

Scharnowski F et al. Improving visual perception through neurofeedback. J Neurosci 2012 [epub].

Contact

Jen Middleton
Senior Media Officer, Wellcome Trust
T
+44 20 7611 7262
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j.middleton@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes to editors

About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

About UCL (University College London)
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. It is among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has 24,000 students from almost 140 countries, and more than 9,500 employees. Its annual income is over £800 million.

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