A potential disadvantage of fast brain processing


In a nutshell: The brain shortcuts that help us respond quickly to threats might also be involved in psychiatric disorders like anxiety, ADHD and autism.

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A potential disadvantage of fast brain processing

The brain processes sensory information by sending signals from region to region along a fixed pathway. In primates, for example, visual information from the retina normally travels along a brain pathway that stops at the primary visual cortex (V1) before proceeding to the amygdala.

But in some cases, the brain uses a shortcut. When primates look at face-like patterns, for example, the visual information reaches the amygdala before the V1.

These shortcuts allow the brain to process some types of information more quickly, which is important in situations where we need to avoid threats or make quick decisions.

A team of researchers led by Brain Function CoE Chief Investigator Marta Garrido from the University of Melbourne believes that these shortcuts might also be involved in some psychiatric disorders.

The researchers reviewed human and animal brain studies and found examples of shortcuts in audio and visual processing. The shortcuts enabled fast responses to imminent threats – such as freezing in place or escaping a potential predator.

But they found evidence that these shortcuts can affect the strength and quality of visual information, thereby changing our perception of the world around us. They also showed that the shortcuts can change how information is processed by other parts of the brain, such as those controlling attention and prediction.

The researchers believe that these effects of brain shortcuts could explain some of the changes in perception, attention and prediction that are seen in psychiatric disorders such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Next steps:
The researchers are planning to investigate how disrupting these shortcuts affects behaviour in brain disorders such as anxiety and autism.

McFadyen, J., Dolan, R. J., & Garrido, M. I. (2020). The influence of subcortical shortcuts on disordered sensory and cognitive processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, doi: 10.1038/s41583-020-0287-1

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