2 March 2016: Externalizing internal mental states to train sustained attention behavior

Megan deBettencourt
Princeton Neuroscience Institute
Princeton University

Remaining focused is important for most everyday tasks, such as being productive at work or driving safely in traffic. Despite this importance, sustaining attention is difficult and prone to frequent lapses. We hypothesized that some of these behavioral errors result from an inability to accurately monitor one’s own attentional state, and that enhancing this metacognitive awareness could lead to lasting improvements in sustained attention. I’ll first describe the development of a real-time fMRI system that involves measuring attentional state and providing closed-loop neurofeedback by altering the stimuli. Then, I’ll present work from a study that used this feedback to demonstrate a training effect: participants who received accurate neurofeedback improved on a sustained attention task. Finally, I’ll extend these results to a pilot study that applied similar techniques to a group of depressed individuals, to train away a bias towards negatively valenced information. Together, these studies suggest that real-time fMRI may enable powerful, customized, and rapid cognitive training.