Students are masters of multitasking: responding to texts lighting up their cell phones with the TV on, listening to music playing in the background, surfing Facebook pulled up on the computer all while writing a paper. It’s is the way the millennial generation operates. Sure, assignments become increasingly difficult when each sentence is rewarded with a glance at Facebook, but most students can find a way to get these assignments done.
Yet for some, these distractions can be debilitating. This specific inability to focus, according to McGill University neuroscience and physiology professor Julio Martinez-Trujillo, is known as “brain clutter.”
“It’s as if you have a table with 10 people talking, saying the same thing to you, but you cannot pay attention to one of them,” he said. “Usually, in normal circumstances, what you can do is to focus your attention on one of them and then you can filter everything out. You can understand more or less what the person is telling you – you can even filter the other voices.
“People that suffer from brain clutter, they can’t do that,” he said.
Those who most commonly experience brain clutter, Martinez-Trujillo said, have conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Now, Martinez-Trujillo and McGill Ph.D student Therese Lennert believe they may have identified neurological filters that reduce brain clutter.
The study, announced April 14 and set to be published in the magazine Neuron, could represent new prospects for those whose brains just can’t sift through the mess.
Martinez-Trujillo began working with children with ADHD in 1994, and he immediately noticed something peculiar about his patients.
“One of the things that I saw in those children with ADHD was that they were unable to concentrate and play with one toy for a couple of minutes – they would jump from one place to the other,” he said. “When you track these children through their development and as they get older, they get into all kinds of trouble because they switch tasks very easily. It seems to be that they can’t filter out distracting information. There is something happening in their environment making them jump from one thing to another.”
Martinez-Trujillo hoped to identify what was happening in the brain in order to understand how the children’s situations distracted them.
“We had two hypotheses. The first one was that neurons in this part of this part of the brain take the relevant information and amplify it and everything else is normal – this is the amplifier hypothesis,” he said. “The second is that we have neurons in the brain that filter the information, not amplify. What we’re interested in is that they filter out everything else – they only let in the information that you’re interested in.”
What he found in his recent study was a confirmation of the second hypothesis, a huge leap for the field.
“Now that we have [this hypothesis], we believe that these neurons are dysfunctional [when brain clutter occurs],” he said. “The problem, and what I am targeting my next five years on, is to find out how exactly these neurons work.”
The goal for Martinez-Trujillo was to not only identify these neurons, but also to pave the way for advancements in the often-controversial medication of these disorders.
LIVING IN CLUTTER
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 3 to 7 percent of school-aged children in the United States have ADHD, though the Centers for Disease Control reports that studies have estimated rates higher than that.
In the U.S., 4.3 percent of youth aged four to 17 are on medication for ADHD.
Boston University College of Communication senior Samantha Ulan was a part of that statistic. Diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, she found it extremely difficult to sit still, much less focus on an assignment in school..
“I had an IQ test as well as the evaluation all in one year because teachers were fairly confused as to how or why I would do well in my work but rarely paid attention,” Ulan said.
As a result of the two tests, doctors suggested Adderall.
“It helped, I could notice that it helped. I would be able to last an entire full day without desperately wanting to go run down the hallways or at the very least take a trip to the bathroom every 20 minutes,” she said.
“I used to make up any excuse to just leave the room and after Adderall it was just easier to sit until the actual breaks.”
Because she was diagnosed so young, Ulan has had time to adjust to and learn from her ADHD. Not only has she gone through multiple kinds of medicines, but she has also worked out new methods of management.
“When I was younger and in class for like eight to nine hours a day plus the after-school activities, I took it every day because it was much more necessary,” she said. “Now though, I really take it mostly during finals [and] midterms . . . also for studying and writing papers. But I usually can focus in class without it now.”
Molly, a College of Arts and Sciences freshman who asked that her full name not be used, is also working to manage her ADHD by taking her medication less frequently for class and more frequently for homework.
“After being diagnosed junior year of high school, there was a huge difference after I started taking medication,” she said. “I felt like a different person, and my friends noticed it too. I was antisocial, very focused and all I wanted to do was work.”
MORE TO LEARN
David Somers, an associate psychology professor who researches in the BU Center for Neuroscience, pointed to brain clutter as a larger public health concern.
“Brain clutter is responsible for many of the things we forget – either because we didn’t fully pay attention or because we got distracted when we were supposed to remember,” he said. “Brain clutter is responsible for car accidents and many other sorts of mistakes that we make. These problems are much more severe in clinical populations – ADHD, schizophrenia, OCD, Alzheimer’s – all have major attentional components.”
Somers also identified habits such as compulsively checking one’s Facebook or reading text messages as a self-generated, technological form of brain clutter.
“For many people today, it is increasingly difficult to stay focused on a single task. We constantly interrupt our intended task to check email or Facebook or text messages. Even in the absence of a cue that we’ve got new mail or texts, we obsessively check,” he said. “This really cuts into our productivity. This techno-brain clutter is a learned phenomena, it is rather like an addiction, and frequently interrupts us with little conscious awareness that we’ve stopped our tasks.
“So one important future direction is to study the relationship between attentional networks and the circuitry that supports operant learning,” he said.
And brain clutter, along with other symptoms of disorders such as ADD and OCD, may not limited to just to those with a diagnosis. Margaret Roth, the director of behavioral medicine at BU Student Health Services, said these types of issues walk a fine line.
“There is an important difference between paralyzing and useful. It’s important to understand that some traits are good and adaptive for functioning well,” she said. “Take, for example, medical students. They’re known to be obsessive and compulsive about doing their job correctly, but if it becomes so involved that it’s debilitating, then it becomes a disorder.”
Both Ulan and Molly said they had noted the negative side effects of the ADHD medications.
“The side effects are awful. I hate taking the medicine. I wish there was something else,” Molly said. “I hope I can learn to deal with it on my own, but I don’t know if that’s feasible right now, just because of the amount of work I have to do in school. If I could stop taking it, I would.”
Martinez-Trujillo’s clutter-reducing filters could spell relief for some of the side effects that Molly, Ulan and millions of other children, teens and young adults live with.
“There are some drugs that are selective inhibitors, but there aren’t really too many. The problem with some of these drugs like the anti-psychotics is that you completely shut the patient down, and they go to the other extreme,” Martinez-Trujillo said.
“The reason why we don’t have good ways of treating these diseases is because we don’t know enough about how the brain works,” he said. “We’ve jumped ahead and started treating one thing and then another thing comes up, but we don’t really know what we are doing.”