Animals are faced with many decisions. They must integrate information from a variety of sources – sensory inputs like smell and sound as well as memories and innate impulses – to arrive at a single behavioral output. My laboratory investigates the neural circuits that underlie decision-making.
The study of decision-making provides a window into the family of brain functions that constitute cognition. It intervenes between perception and action and can link one to the other. Although much is known about sensory processing and motor control, much less is known about the circuitry connecting them. Some of the most interesting circuits are those that make it possible to deliberate among different interpretations of sensory information before making a choice about what to do. Anne Churchland’s lab investigates the neural machinery underlying decision-making. Lab members use carefully designed paradigms that encourage experimental subjects to deliberate over incoming sensory evidence before making a decision. Recent results show that rats and humans have a statistically similar decision-making ability. To connect this behavior to its underlying neural circuitry, the researchers measure electrophysiological responses of cortical neurons in rodents as they perform designated tasks. The lab’s current focus is on parietal cortex, which appears to be at the midpoint between sensory processing and motor planning. Churchland and colleagues also use theoretical models of varying complexity to further constrain how observed neural responses might drive behavior. This approach generates insights into sensory processing, motor planning, and complex cognitive function.
2012 Trubatch Career Development Award