Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Neurons In The Frontal Lobe May Be Responsible For Rational Decision-making

Date:
December 11, 2007
Source:
Harvard Medical School
Summary:
Scientists have found that when monkeys choose between different options, the value neurons assign to each option does not depend on the menu of choices. This phenomenon may explain a behavioral trait called preference transitivity, which is the hallmark of rational economic choice. The results may also elucidate our understanding of certain "choice deficits" such as eating disorders, compulsive gambling and other abnormal social behaviors.

You study the menu at a restaurant and decide to order the steak rather than the salmon. But when the waiter tells you about the lobster special, you decide lobster trumps steak. Without reconsidering the salmon, you place your order -- all because of a trait called "transitivity."

Related Articles


"Transitivity is the hallmark of rational economic choice," says Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, a postdoctoral researcher in HMS Professor of Neurobiology John Assad's lab. According to transitivity, if you prefer A to B and B to C, then you ought to prefer A to C. Or, if you prefer lobster to steak, and steak to salmon, then you will prefer lobster to salmon.

Padoa-Schioppa is lead author on a paper that suggests this trait might be encoded at the level of individual neurons. The study, which appears online Dec. 9 in Nature Neuroscience, shows that some neurons in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex encode economic value in a "menu invariant" way. That is, the neurons respond the same to steak regardless if it's offered against salmon or lobster.

"People make choices by assigning values to different options. If the values are menu invariant preferences will be transitive. The activity of these neurons does not vary with the menu options, suggesting that these neurons could be responsible for transitivity," Padoa-Schioppa explains.

"This study provides a key insight into the biology of our frontal lobes and the neural circuits that underlie decision-making," Assad adds. "Despite the maxim, we in fact can compare apples to oranges, and we do it all the time. Camillo's research sheds light on how we make these types of choices."

Frontal lobe damage has been linked to "choice deficits" such as eating disorders, compulsive gambling and abnormal social behavior. For example, in the first documented case of brain injury impacting behavior, the infamous railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage became unsociable after a tamping iron passed through his skull in 1848, damaging his frontal lobes. This area of the brain has also been implicated in drug abuse.

Labs are just beginning to probe normal decision-making at the level of individual neurons, venturing into a new field called neuroeconomics. Such research might eventually help to explain choice deficits associated with frontal lobe functions.

The new study builds on an April 2006 Nature paper in which Padoa-Schioppa and Assad identified neurons that encode the value macaque monkeys assign to juice they choose independent of its type, providing a common currency of comparison for the brain.

In that study, the scientists found that although monkeys generally prefer grape juice to apple juice, sometimes they choose the latter, if it is offered in large amounts. When presented with 3 units of apple juice and 1 unit of grape juice, for example, a monkey might take the grape juice only 50 percent of the time. This indicates that the value of the grape juice is 3 times that of the apple juice. A particular group of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex fire at roughly the same rate, regardless of the monkey's decision because the animal values both choices equally. These neurons also fire at the same rate if the monkey chooses 6 units of apple juice or 2 units of grape juice. Thus, these neurons encode the value the monkey receives in each trial.

Now, by adding a third juice to the mix, the team has tested whether these neurons reflect transitivity. The three juices were offered to a monkey in pairs dozens of times over the course of a session, the quantity of each juice varying from trial to trial.

In general, monkeys preferred 1 unit of juice A to 1 unit of juice B, 1B to 1C, and 1A to 1C. During each session, Padoa-Schioppa recorded the activity of a handful of neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, and he discovered their firing rate did not depend on whether B was offered against A or against C, indicating that these neurons respond in a menu invariant way.

"The stability of these neurons could help to explain why we make decisions that are consistent over the short term," Padoa-Schioppa says. "In our study, the neural circuit was not influenced by the short-term behavioral context."

Padoa-Schioppa is now examining the possibility that value-encoding neurons may adapt to different value scales over longer periods of time.

This research is supported by a post-doctoral fellowship from the Harvard Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative, by a Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institute of Mental Health and by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard Medical School. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Harvard Medical School. "Neurons In The Frontal Lobe May Be Responsible For Rational Decision-making." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 December 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071210094455.htm>.
Harvard Medical School. (2007, December 11). Neurons In The Frontal Lobe May Be Responsible For Rational Decision-making. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071210094455.htm
Harvard Medical School. "Neurons In The Frontal Lobe May Be Responsible For Rational Decision-making." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071210094455.htm (accessed October 24, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Friday, October 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Academic Scandal Shocks UNC

Academic Scandal Shocks UNC

AP (Oct. 23, 2014) A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, a new investigation found. (Oct. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Working Mother Getaway: Beaches Turks & Caicos

Working Mother Getaway: Beaches Turks & Caicos

Working Mother (Oct. 22, 2014) Feast your eyes on this gorgeous family-friendly resort. Video provided by Working Mother
Powered by NewsLook.com
What Your Favorite Color Says About You

What Your Favorite Color Says About You

Buzz60 (Oct. 22, 2014) We all have one color we love to wear, and believe it or not, your color preference may reveal some of your character traits. In celebration of National Color Day, Krystin Goodwin (@kyrstingoodwin) highlights what your favorite colors may say about you. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
First-Of-Its-Kind Treatment Gives Man Ability To Walk Again

First-Of-Its-Kind Treatment Gives Man Ability To Walk Again

Newsy (Oct. 21, 2014) A medical team has for the first time given a man the ability to walk again after transplanting cells from his brain onto his severed spinal cord. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins