More about Miller Lab Research

More about Miller Lab Research


The Miller Lab studies the neural basis of executive control, the ability to carry out goal-directed behavior using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities. This includes working memory, attention, decision-making and learning. His lab has had made discoveries about the neural circuits, networks, and mechanisms by which the brain’s prefrontal cortex wields executive control. They have shown how categories and concepts are learned, how multifunctional mixed-selectivity neurons endow the cortex with computational versatility and flexibility, and how neural oscillations regulate neural communication and consciousness. This work has established a foundation upon which to construct more detailed, mechanistic accounts of cognition and its dysfunction in diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder.

Examples of discoveries from Earl Miller’s laboratory include the neural basis of abstract rules like “same vs. different”,[3] categories[11], quantity [12], and the allocation of attentional resources.[13] They have also shown how the brain can learn aned flexibly remap associations.[14] The Miller Lab has shown that cortical neurons can be multifunctional (i.e., show “mixed selectivity”).[15] This is a major advance beyond earlier theories that each neuron has a specific function. This property gives the brain greater computational horsepower and endows flexibility, a hallmark of higher-level cognition.[16]

The Miller Lab has innovated techniques for recording from many neurons simultaneously in multiple brain areas, a departure from the classic single-neuron recording approach. It has revealed network dynamics and emergent properties that are not possible by studying individual neurons [17]. Miller’s lab has used this approach to understand how network interactions produce thought and action[18]. This includes discoveries that oscillating “brain waves” control the timing of shifts of attention[19] and that different items simultaneously held in working memory line up on different phases of each brain wave.[20] The latter may explain why we can only think about a few things at the same time.[21] They have shown that lower-frequency (alpha/beta) brain waves act as a top-down control signal that regulates sensory processing in cortex[22][23]. They found that brain waves transfer information between the left and right cerebral cortex[24]. They have shown how the general anesthetic, propofol, induces unconsciousness by shifting cortical brain waves to low frequencies[25]

Miller’s paper with Jonathan Cohen, An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function,[26] has been designated a Current Classic as among the most cited papers in Neuroscience and Behavior.[27] It is the 5th most-cited paper in the history of Neuroscience.[28] His paper with Tim Buschman, Top-down versus Bottom-up Control of Attention in the Prefrontal and Posterior Parietal Cortices[29] was The Scientist‘s Hot Paper for October 2009.[30]