Neuroscientists have discovered a new area of the brain that is uniquely specialised for peripheral vision and could be targeted in future treatments for panic disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Monash University researchers led the study, whose results were published in the journal Current Biology this week. They found that a brain area, known as prostriata, was specialised in detecting fast-moving objects in peripheral vision.

This area, located in a primitive part of the cerebral cortex, has characteristics unlike any other visual area described before, including a “direct line” of communication to brain areas controlling emotion and quick reactions.

One of the chief researchers from the university’s Department of Physiology, Dr Hsin-Hao Yu, said the discovery made during the development of the Monash Vision Group’s bionic eye could lead to new treatments for panic disorders such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and may extend into other medical areas including Alzheimer’s treatment.

“The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and perhaps the most remarkable,” Dr Yu said. “These findings change how we think of the brain in terms of how visual information is processed.

“This area is likely to be hyperactive in panic disorder, with agoraphobia. This knowledge could lead to treatment options for the hyperactivity, and therefore sensitivity to such disorders, particularly the fear of open spaces.

“Correlation with previous studies also shows that prostriata is one of the first areas affected in Alzheimer’s disease. This knowledge helps to explain spatial disorientation and the tendency to fall, which are among the earliest signs of a problem associated with Alzheimer’s.”

Professor Marcello Rosa, also from Monash University’s Department of Physiology and the joint study leader with Dr Yu, said this area of the brain had ultra-fast responses to visual stimuli, simultaneously broadcasting information to brain areas that control attention, emotional and motor reactions. This challenges the current understanding of how the brain processes visual information, he said.

“This suggests a specialised brain circuit through which stimuli in peripheral vision can be fast-tracked to command quickly coordinated physical and emotional responses,” Prof Rosa said. 

The Monash Vision Group’s bionic eye was funded by the Australian Research Council, through the Research in Bionic Vision Science and Technology Initiative.

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