Long Shot or Sure Thing? New Research Explores How the Brain Makes Choices

A new publication by a neuroscience research team at NYU Shanghai has explored the intricate neural processes that govern decision-making in uncertain situations. The paper, recently published in Nature Neuroscience, provides fresh insights into how the brain processes and weighs different risks during choices of uncertainties. These situations involve having to choose between different options, such as deciding to take a risk or play it safe, a fundamental aspect of human and animal behavior.

Uncertainty can be classified into two main categories: unexpected and expected uncertainty. Unexpected uncertainty arises from a lack of information, such as when trying a new restaurant or starting a new job. Expected uncertainty, on the other hand, persists even with knowledge.

Consider crossing a busy street as an example: every time you cross a bustling street, there is a risk of an accident, even if you follow traffic rules and signals. This represents expected uncertainty because you are aware of the potential danger, but you still must decide whether to cross the street.

Understanding how our brains make decisions in uncertain situations is crucial. It helps us comprehend why some individuals are willing to take significant risks, like gambling, while others opt for a safer choice, such as saving money. This understanding can shed light on the workings of addiction and help us understand how to make wiser financial decisions.

The research team focused their study on two specific regions of the brain: the frontal orienting field (FOF) and the posterior parietal cortex (PPC). While these brain areas are known to play a role in decision-making, their exact functions in situations involving risky choices have remained unclear.

Rats were chosen as subjects for experiments due to their suitability for manipulating brain activity. The researchers trained the rats to make decisions between a guaranteed small reward (referred to as the sure bet) and the opportunity to potentially win more (referred to as the lottery). During the experiments, they used pharmacological and optogenetic silencing to temporarily switch off the FOF and PPC regions in the rats' brains to observe how it affected their decisions. 

The key finding of the study was that when the FOF was silenced, the rats showed a decreased inclination to choose the lottery option. This suggests that the FOF plays a crucial role in how our brains assess and assign value to different choices. Decision-making isn't merely random; it involves a complex evaluation of available options to determine the most favorable choice. The authors then used mathematical modeling techniques to better understand how the FOF contributed to the decision. Their models predicted that the FOF encodes the value of the lottery on each trial. This prediction was confirmed with neural recordings from the FOF, demonstrating a novel role for the FOF, which had previously been considered to be mostly involved in motor planning.

The significance of this research lies in its potential real-world applications. Understanding how the brain makes decisions, especially in uncertain situations, has broad implications. It can provide insights into why individuals are willing to take risks, such as in gambling, and can enhance our understanding of decision-making across various fields, including economics and psychology. Additionally, this research may contribute to our knowledge of how stress influences financial decisions and could lead to the development of strategies for making more informed choices, particularly in high-pressure situations.

The research was led by Professor Jeffrey Erlich’s lab at NYU Shanghai. The co-first authors of the study were Bao Chaofei, former Postdoctoral Fellow with NYU Shanghai, and Zhu Xiaoyue a 2022 NYU Shanghai Neural Science PhD graduate. Joshua Moller-Mara, Li Jingjie, and Sylvain Dubroqua also contributed to the study.