Exploring ‘Decision Neuroscience’

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Neuroscience is a fairly new field of science, and it is continuing to branch out with new areas of study, once of which is ‘decision neuroscience.’ This area of brain study delves into how people are able to make decisions — including how we learn value of actions and goods, and how we use this information to make informed decisions.

Research in this area of the brain has really taken off in the last decade as scientists scramble to decipher what exactly is happening in our brains when we make decisions — no matter how big or small the choice may be.

Recent work has latched on to the functions of the midbrain dopamine system and how it interacts with the prefrontal cortex, which processes complex cognitive behaviors, personality and social behavior; and the parietal cortices that process sensory information, spatial sense and navigation.

Other researchers are focused on how the brains of individuals, at different phases of their life, respond to environmental and social differences.

Early studies suggest that complex thinking can be broken down into smaller components, which may aid them in determining how each component works with the others to form a decision. With this research scientists hope to be able to better understand the workings of the brain in order to find solutions for mental illness, depression and schizophrenia.

“For many psychiatric disorders, patients that are symptomatic are frequently making poor decisions about numerous things throughout the day, such as how they handle their anxiety and other emotional states,” said C. Daniel Salzman, MD, PhD., Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Kavli Institute for Brain Science, Columbia University School of Medicine. “If you’ve ever had a friend or family member with depression, you can see they are not making decisions the way they normally do. So there clearly has to be dysfunction in the neurocircuits of psychiatric patients affecting their decisions, and we need to understand this better in order to come up with better treatments for mental disorders.”

As pointed out by another participant in the dialogue, this research is already deepening understanding of these disorders.

“Our new knowledge about the cellular and circuit mechanisms of working memory and decision processes in the brain has already had a significant impact on clinical studies of mental illness,” said Xiao-Jing Wang, PhD., Department of Neurobiology at the Kavli Institute of Neuroscience, Yale University School of Medicine. “For instance, addiction is fundamentally a problem of making bad choices, resulting from impaired reward signaling and decision-making circuits in the brain. Understanding these circuits has become key to linking genes and molecules with behavior in clinical studies.”

Researchers believe there are fundamental genetic differences that give rise to different decision making styles, and better understanding the neurobiological basis of decision making will have enormous implications. “It can explain a lot of problems in our society, including differences in the tendency to develop psychiatric illnesses,” stated Wang.

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University of Illinois at Champagne/Urbana – Executive Control and the Prefrontal Cortex: http://www.decisionneurosciencelab.org/projects/prefrontal_cortex.html

Stanford University — Decision Neuroscience Laboratory: http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~dnl/

Medical News Today – Deciphering How The Brain Chooses And Decides – The Neuroscience Of Decision Making: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/234511.php

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