Atypical control of attention is a core component of autism spectrum disorders. Eric Knudsen and his colleagues at Stanford University in California set out to develop a new model system (chickens) to accelerate the discovery of neural mechanisms that control attention. The researchers have developed behavioral protocols for controlling and measuring the effects of attention in chickens.
Using these protocols, Knudsen’s group has quantified improvements in behavioral performance in terms of response accuracy and speed that result from attention, and the loss in performance caused by distracting stimuli. They found that the effects of attention and the effects of distracting stimuli on attention are highly similar in chickens and humans. In addition, they developed new methods to record from, and manipulate, specific circuits in the midbrain attention network of alert chickens.
When combined, these new methods may allow researchers to advance to the next step: discovering the synaptic, cellular and circuit mechanisms that control attention. The resulting knowledge may enable researchers to identify specific receptor molecules, cells and circuits that function abnormally in people with autism, informing the search for causes and treatments for the disorder.