Editors' ChoiceNeuroscience

The Brain Origin of Choice

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Science Translational Medicine  14 Mar 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 125, pp. 125ec46
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003979

Do you ever wonder how you arrive at a particular decision? How does your brain weigh the advantages and disadvantages of choices presented and come up with a selection that is satisfying to you? The science of choice has important implications for individuals and society at multiple levels. Yet, it is still uncertain exactly how the brain translates the sensory presentation of choice to a behavioral outcome. To further understand this complex process, scientists have probed the brain’s structure and function, even at the level of the individual neuron. However, recent data suggest that it is interactive network dynamics between regions across the entire brain that get at the heart of how we make even the simplest decisions.

By applying a new model-based approach to understand whole brain network dynamics, Hunt and colleagues simulated a well-known decision algorithm to predict measured neural signal in humans using magneto-encephalography (MEG), a tool that uses electrical currents in the brain to generate magnetic fields. The researchers examined the relation between their model’s simulated total synaptic input and the physiological signal generated by MEG to estimate the neural process associated with making a decision. When the participants press a response button expressing their choice, the task of making a decision began with the visual cortex, spread to the front of the brain and into the ventromedial prefrontal region, passing from the middle to lateral aspects of the parietal cortex, and ended in the motor areas. This entire process happened in just a few seconds.

Using in vivo neuroimaging coupled with advanced computational modeling, Hunt et al. can demonstrate with great precision dynamic decision-making in the brain. These findings are limited to the regions that highly correlated with the model proposed, which did not include other regions of the brain, such as the striatum, that have been implicated in choice but are not easily detected with MEG. Despite this limitation, the hope is that research of this kind might be used to investigate how behavior manifests from dynamic brain networks.

L. T. Hunt et al., Mechanisms underlying cortical activity during value-guided choice. Nat. Neurosci. 15, 470–476 (2012). [Abstract]

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