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Investigating attention and visual exploration using MEG based on optically pumped magnetometers

Primary Supervisor: Professor Ole Jensen, School of Psychology

Secondary supervisor: Dr. Giovanni Barontini

PhD project title: Investigating attention and visual exploration using MEG based on optically pumped magnetometers.

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:


The aim is to apply newly developed optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs) together with rapid frequency tagging to investigate the neuronal mechanism associated with attention and visual exploration in humans.

Visual attention is an essential cognitive process that, for instance, deteriorates with age. It allows us to focus on relevant objects in a complex environment while ignoring irrelevant objects. It also allows for guiding our eyes to the important parts in visuals scenes. We have recently developed a new technique termed rapid frequency tagging (RFT) in which different objects in a visual display are flickered subliminally at 60-80 Hz. We have demonstrated that the allocation of attention is associated with an increase in RFT [1], i.e. we have a new tool for investigating neuronal excitability associated with attention and visual exploration. In particular, the neuronal mechanisms of visual exploration by eye-movements in humans is an important emerging topic.

OPMs have been hailed as the future of brain imaging as they hold the promise of replacing conventional MEG sensors [2]. OPMs are mounted on the human head allowing participants to move. They can be used in natural settings with minimal inconvenience in children, adults and they elderly. Importantly, OPMs work well with RFT as it requires only a handful of sensors to be informative. This is advantageous as OPM systems still are in development and have a limited number of sensors.

In short, the combination of OPMs sensor with rapid frequency tagging holds the promise of providing novels insight on attention and visual exploration in humans.


The research objectives are

  1. Develop an OPM system working in combination with RFT
  2. Apply the technique in humans to investigate neuronal excitability and routing associated with spatial attention
  3. Applying the technique to investigate visual exploration related to saccades

The educational objectives are skill development on

  1. the use of new brain imaging technology in humans
  2. human cognitive neuroscience associated with visual exploration
  3. signal-processing and statistical analysis
  4. open science including pre-registration and data sharing
  5. oral presentation and academic writing skills


Objective 1. The goal is to integrate the use of OPMs with RFT. This entails developing attention paradigms involving multiple objects flickering at different frequencies.

Objective 2. The setup will be used in healthy young adults to investigate spatial attention. The project will allow for uncovering the neuronal activity associated with spatial attention and visual exploration in visual search paradigms.

Objective 3. As in objective 2, visual search paradigms will be used in combination with RFT. Participants will be allowed to move their eyes in the visual exploration tasks. This will allow for uncovering the brain activity associated with pre-viewing of future saccade goals. In particular, we will develop paradigms to investigate pre-viewing in terms of visual features.

The educational objectives will be developed by mentoring the student throughout the project. The University’s graduate school provide a wide range of skill training that the student will be encouraged to follow depending on a training-and-needs analysis.

In sum, the research project will allow for uncovering the neuronal mechanisms associated with attention and free visual exploration using the novel technique of RFT in combination with OPMs. The new methodology will be of general future use for both clinical and cognitive brain research. Eventually, it can be used to identify and alleviate attention problems associated with ageing.


  1. Zhigalov A, Jensen O. (2020) Alpha oscillations do not implement gain control in early visual cortex but rather gating in parieto-occipital regions. Hum Brain Mapp.
  2. Boto E, et al . (2018) Moving magnetoencephalography towards real-world applications with a wearable system. 555:657-661.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and behaviour

      Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

      • Magnetoencephalography: based on conventional SQUID-MEG systems and a newly developed Optically Pumped Magnetometers system
      • Magneto resonance imaging (MRI)
      • Cognitive Neuroscience paradigms
      • Signal-processing and statistical assessment using Matlab and Phyton

      Contact: Professor Ole Jensen, University of Birmingham