Neural signatures of attention: insights from decoding population activity patterns

Front Biosci (Landmark Ed). 2018 Jan 1;23:221-246. doi: 10.2741/4588.


Understanding brain function and the computations that individual neurons and neuronal ensembles carry out during cognitive functions is one of the biggest challenges in neuroscientific research. To this end, invasive electrophysiological studies have provided important insights by recording the activity of single neurons in behaving animals. To average out noise, responses are typically averaged across repetitions and across neurons that are usually recorded on different days. However, the brain makes decisions on short time scales based on limited exposure to sensory stimulation by interpreting responses of populations of neurons on a moment to moment basis. Recent studies have employed machine-learning algorithms in attention and other cognitive tasks to decode the information content of distributed activity patterns across neuronal ensembles on a single trial basis. Here, we review results from studies that have used pattern-classification decoding approaches to explore the population representation of cognitive functions. These studies have offered significant insights into population coding mechanisms. Moreover, we discuss how such advances can aid the development of cognitive brain-computer interfaces.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / cytology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / cytology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology