The attentional control that organisms need to succeed in their goals comes from two abilities: the focus to ignore distractions and the discipline to curb impulses. A new study by MIT neuroscientists shows that these abilities are independent, but that the activity of norepinephrine-producing neurons in a single brain region, the locus coeruleus, controls both by targeting two distinct areas of the prefrontal cortex.

“Our results demonstrate a fundamental causal role of LC neuronal activation in the implementation of attentional control by the selective modulation of neural activity in its target areas,” wrote the authors of the study from the research group of Susumu Tonegawa, Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at RIKEN-MIT Laboratory of Neural Circuit Genetics at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.