Decision Making: The Brain’s Blueprint for Future Insights

Summary: Researchers made a breakthrough in understanding how the brain makes decisions about future information, pinpointing the lateral habenula as a key player in this process. Their study demonstrates that humans and animals evaluate the worth of cognitive rewards, such as information about the future, using mental rules that the brain applies to both tangible rewards and the intangible satisfaction of curiosity.

This research not only sheds light on the fundamental mechanisms of decision-making but also offers potential pathways for treating mental health disorders characterized by impaired decision-making, such as OCD, anxiety, and depression, by targeting specific neural circuits involved in processing uncertainty and cognitive rewards.

Key Facts:

  1. Lateral Habenula’s Role: The study identifies the lateral habenula, an ancient brain structure, as crucial in regulating decision-making about physical and cognitive rewards.
  2. Mental Rules for Decision-Making: Researchers discovered that the brain uses a set of mental rules to decide the value of information about the future, revealing how much individuals are willing to pay to resolve uncertainty.
  3. Implications for Mental Health: The findings have significant implications for understanding and treating mental illnesses that affect decision-making, pointing towards more personalized medicine approaches by pinpointing specific malfunctions in uncertainty processing.

Source: WUSTL

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have new insight on what goes on inside people’s heads as they make decisions to obtain information about the future.

The scientists identified a set of mental rules that governs decision-making about physical rewards—for example, food or money—and cognitive rewards—like the joy felt when accessing sought information.

They also identified the part of the brain that regulates this type of decision-making. The process occurs in the lateral habenula, an ancient brain structure shared by species as distantly related as people and fish. 

This shows a man on a maze.
One of the key principles they uncovered is that individuals seek information largely to resolve uncertainty. Credit: Neuroscience News

The study is published in Nature Neuroscience.

The findings not only offer insight into the body’s most mysterious organ but have the potential to help people struggling with tough choices, whether due to the inherent complexity of certain decisions—such as whether to take a genetic test that might return unwelcome information—or due to mental illnesses that affect the ability to make decisions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and depression.

“Identifying the circuits involved with assigning value to cognitive rewards, like information about the future, is really important, because that kind of valuation is often what breaks down in mental disorders,” said senior author Ilya Monosov, a professor of neuroscience at Washington University.

“If we can understand exactly what part of the decision-making process is malfunctioning in an individual, we may be able to target that aspect of the process precisely and treat some mental illnesses more effectively.”

Making a choice between two options often requires weighing the values of and making trade-offs between multiple factors. Some of these factors are concrete and practical. But there are also intangible factors that can provide powerful motivation to choose one option over another, such as the desire to satisfy curiosity and gain information.

Some information has practical value, of course, such as advance warning of an incoming hurricane. But experiments have shown that people and animals value obtaining information even when they cannot parlay it into something useful.

“Take, for example, a student who turns in a final exam and then wants to know the results immediately,” said co-first author Yang-Yang Feng, an MD/Ph.D. student who designed and led the the study’s experiments with human participants.

“Finding out your score today versus finding out in a week won’t change the results or gain you any kind of advantage. But some people want to know so badly that they will pay to find out early. That’s called non-instrumental information seeking, trying to obtain information for its own sake.”

Historically, the drive to obtain practical rewards, such as money or food, and the drive to obtain information have been studied as separate phenomena. This division is artificial and oversimplifies the choices people make in the real world, the researchers said.

Feng and co-first author Ethan Bromberg-Martin, a senior scientist in Monosov’s lab, designed experiments that required participants to make trade-offs between rewards and non-instrumental information, to come to a final decision.

Study participants were given a choice between two options, each of which gave them a chance at obtaining a few cents. The amount of money they could win and the likelihood of winning it varied. Some of the options came with the promise to learn the outcome early, before actual money arrived. In separate experiments, monkeys were offered analogous choices, with juice as the reward instead of money.

“By analyzing the trade-offs individuals made, we were able to work out some of the rules that individuals use to decide how much they’re willing to pay for information,” Bromberg-Martin said. “These rules generalized between humans and animals, suggesting that this abstract value may be conserved through evolution.”

One of the key principles they uncovered is that individuals seek information largely to resolve uncertainty. The more uncertainty, the more they are willing to pay for information about it. Intuitively, this makes sense.

You would probably be willing to pay more to find out the outcome of a $100 bet than a $1 bet, especially if you could get the information sooner rather than later. These and other principles form a logical framework that the brain relies on to make choices.

But sometimes the system malfunctions.

“Some people with OCD exhibit what’s known as checking behaviors, where they go back and check the same thing over and over,” Monosov said. “This is aberrant information-seeking behavior, and it is basically due to a misprocessing of uncertainty.”

As part of this study, the team discovered that decision-making algorithms are implemented through a neurological circuit that culminates in the lateral habenula, a tiny structure located deep in the brain. The lateral habenula is a major regulator of dopamine and has been linked to mental illnesses including depression, anxiety and OCD.

The team is working on using tasks requiring participants to make choices, similar to those in this study, to classify people with OCD into subtypes that correspond to how their brains process uncertainty. Doing so would be a step toward more targeted therapies.

“A person may be fine in some regards, but their uncertainty processing is off in one specific way,” Monosov said.

“Rather than saying that someone has a broad mental disorder such as OCD, we could say that their uncertainty processing is broken in this specific way, and here’s how we can modulate it. It’s a step toward more personalized medicine for mental illnesses.”

About this decision making and neuroscience research news

Author: Tamara Schneider
Source: WUSTL
Contact: Tamara Schneider – WUSTL
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
A neural mechanism for conserved value computations integrating information and rewards” by Ethan S. Bromberg-Martin et al. Nature Neuroscience


A neural mechanism for conserved value computations integrating information and rewards

Behavioral and economic theory dictate that we decide between options based on their values. However, humans and animals eagerly seek information about uncertain future rewards, even when this does not provide any objective value.

This implies that decisions are made by endowing information with subjective value and integrating it with the value of extrinsic rewards, but the mechanism is unknown.

Here, we show that human and monkey value judgements obey strikingly conserved computational principles during multi-attribute decisions trading off information and extrinsic reward.

We then identify a neural substrate in a highly conserved ancient structure, the lateral habenula (LHb). LHb neurons signal subjective value, integrating information’s value with extrinsic rewards, and the LHb predicts and causally influences ongoing decisions.

Neurons in key input areas to the LHb largely signal components of these computations, not integrated value signals. Thus, our data uncover neural mechanisms of conserved computations underlying decisions to seek information about the future.

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