Visuals increase attention. Now science explains why.


“Look at me!” we might say while attempting to engage our children. It turns out there is a neurochemical explanation for why looking at mom or dad actually helps kiddos pay better attention.

In a paper published Dec. 17 in the journal Science Advances, authors from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (also referred to as UT Health San Antonio) report that norepinephrine, a fundamental chemical for brain performance, is locally regulated in a brain region called the visual cortex. “Before our study, research suggested the possibility of local regulation of norepinephrine release, but it had never been directly demonstrated,” said study senior author Martin Paukert, MD, assistant professor of cellular and integrative physiology at UT Health San Antonio. 

Norepinephrine and Attention

Norepinephrine is known to be involved in paying attention. “A certain amount of this chemical needs to be released for optimum brain performance and ability to pay attention,” Dr. Paukert said. “So, if there is either too much of it or too little of it, it may affect how we process information.”

Disease states in which norepinephrine is known to be altered include substance use disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In some substance use, Alzheimer’s and ADHD, the release of norepinephrine is reduced, resulting in lower attention. In other substance use and PTSD, the level is too high.

They are sensitive to it, in other words. Cells in the nervous system called astrocytes alter their response accordingly, which is expected to change brain performance. Understanding this connection could enhance sensory-specific attention. Research will continue in that direction.

StepUp Note

This research shows that norepinephrine, a brain chemical known to effect attention, is regulated in the visual cortex therefore explaining why looking at a visual helps us pay attention. Previous research shows that movement exercises improve both impulse control and attention because exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine. The StepUp approach combines colorful visuals with movement, rhythm and repetition. StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum and can be used as an intervention for struggling learners.