Training the Brain to Maintain Attention

A study underway at I-LABS uses neurofeedback to help train the brain to maintain attention while reading.

Upon receiving her ADHD diagnosis at age 17, Marissa Pighin remembers her first interaction with her doctor as, "'I'll write you a 'script and send you out the door.'"

Pighin, now 22 and a UW psychology honors student, thought that there must be a better way to treat ADHD. "With medications, it's artificial—once they're out of your system, the symptoms come back," she said. "I want more than a Band-Aid, I want a long-term solution.”

In a new research project at the UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, Pighin is developing an innovative strategy that could help train the brain to maintain attention while reading—a problem she has experienced related to her ADHD.

At I-LABS, Pighin works with Chantel Prat and Andrea Stocco, co-directors of the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory and professors in the UW psychology department.

"What makes Marissa’s project unique is the application of neurofeedback protocols to improve reading comprehension, which is central both to academic performance and to functioning in modern society more generally," said Prat, an associate professor of psychology.

"Our goal is to help all people become more 'focused’ readers," Prat said.

"I Knew I Wasn't 'Fine'"

Born and raised in Seattle by her mom and grandparents, Pighin is the first in her family to go to college, and she's struggled to find her way to higher education—first at Washington State University, then at Highline Community College. She transferred to UW in fall 2014.

Before she came to UW, Pighin was told "you're fine—you're in the honors program" when she first inquired years ago about resources for students with ADHD.

But she knew she wasn't "fine." Ever since grade school, Pighin had noticed that she struggled in school compared with her peers. It took her three or four times longer than everyone else to finish homework assignments. Standard lessons like multiplication tables, grammar, and even how to tell time had slipped by—all because, as Pighin believes, her ADHD made it too hard to focus on tasks she wasn't interested in learning.

Her personal experience with ADHD and a passion for cognitive neuroscience convinced her to explore the brain mechanisms that underlie attention.

Charting a Research Path

Prat and Stocco's lab, which Pighin calls "like a family, we're all in it together," studies how neural networks across the brain flex and respond with mental activities.

Using a variety of brain-imaging tools, the researchers explore brain characteristics that allow some people to learn faster than others, how knowing a second language improves attention and other cognitive abilities, and even how two human brains can be linked via computers and the Internet to exchange information.

Pighin's project uses neurofeedback where users incrementally gain control over their brain's activity. With Prat and Stocco, Pighin devised the experiment partly based on her understanding of how her own brain works, such as her struggles to maintain attention while reading and having to reread passages over and over to understand them.

Her work, at least at this point, is focused on improving reading comprehension in healthy individuals.

The first steps of the project, which is funded in part by a fellowship Pighin received from the UW Institute for Neuroengineering, include figuring out which brain rhythms to target, and in which brain areas. The research recently received support from the UW Royalty Research Fund. Pighin is also supported by a UW Faculty Auxiliary scholarship.

Using Neurofeedback to Improve Attention

The experiment goes like this:

A volunteer in the study wears what looks like a set of headphones that wrap around the back of the head and contain sensors that detect the brain's electrical activity. The set-up connects wirelessly to a computer and gives real-time feedback on brain activity.

Seated in a chair in front of a computer, the volunteer plays a video game where the goal is to make an image of a hang glider on the computer screen fly as high and for as long as possible, all through the person's brain rhythms. Pighin is working with Steven Pillen, a UW research technologist, to create the video game. "I want it to be fun!" Pighin said of the brain exercises. "This is my heart and soul."

Discoveries to Help Others: "You're Not Alone"

She's found behavioral strategies to help eliminate distractions and maintain her attention, and she takes Adderall to keep ADHD symptoms in check. But Pighin is driven to find other solutions that offer a longer term fix.

Already, Pighin has seen how she can use her own experiences with ADHD to help others. As a nanny to a 13-year-old girl with the same disorder, she helped the girl come up with solutions for getting homework done, organizing, and everything else Pighin has struggled, and coped with for years.

"The feeling I got after helping her realize she wasn’t alone in her struggle, and showing her that even with ADHD you can still achieve whatever you set your mind to is so indescribable," Pighin said, “anything is possible, and I truly believe that.”

Learn more about Pighin and the experiment in a video: