How do brains make decisions? In this seminar, Dr. Anne Churchland tells us why understanding decision-making is important, and outlines common approaches to study decision-making in the lab using a variety of mammals. She describes findings that suggest accurate decision-making results from a combination of visual and auditory stimuli in both humans and rats, and tells of the discovery of an explore-exploit tradeoff that allows rats to respond optimally to changing environments. Dr. Churchland then outlines the major methods for tracking neural activity in the brain and shows how they have been used to determine that many brain areas are active during decision-making. She ends her talk with an overview of new directions in the field.
In her second talk, Churchland outlines her group’s studies of the relationship between decision-making and action. She notes that in addition to methods to track neural activity, high-resolution videos of the decision-making process in mice provide valuable movement data. Using labeled calcium to visualize neural activity across the dorsal cortex, Churchland’s group finds that maps of the visual world are represented up to six times in each mouse brain! The Churchland group also found that neural activity appeared to be the same across novice and expert decision-makers. They developed a mathematical model to predict the influence of numerous variables on neural activity and found that movement-related variables accounted for a greater proportion of the variance in neural activity than decision-related variables. Specifically, spontaneous (non-instructed) movements had the greatest predicted influence on neural activity. They then validated their results at the single-neuron level using two-photon microscopy. Dr. Churchland ends her talk by highlighting a significant remaining question: what are the neural differences between novice and expert decision-makers?
Anne Churchland is an Associate Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research group studies the neural circuits that underlie decision-making in mice and rats. Churchland received a B.A. from Wellesley College and a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco. She began her research on decision making while she was a… Continue Reading