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CSHL neuroscientists glimpse how the brain decides what to believe
Date:8/11/2008

Kepecs, Mainen and colleagues trained rats to make decisions of different difficulty. Because rats excel at olfaction, this was achieved by repeatedly presenting them with odors composed of mixtures of two chemicals and asking them to determine which component was stronger in order to receive a small reward.

By precisely varying the exact mixture of components, it was possible to manipulate the difficulty of the decision and therefore the animals' predicted level of uncertainty. This task is akin to asking a human whether a particular blend of blue and green colors is more blue or more green. Confidence is typically highest when the blend is mostly green or mostly blue. Uncertainty is highest when the blend contains nearly equal amounts of each color.

The team recorded signals from individual neurons in the rodents' brains while they were put to the test of distinguishing smells. They found that neurons in a part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (an area of the brain found in both rats and humans) signal the uncertainty of the decisions, "firing" much more vigorously in difficult tests compared with easier tests.

"These neurons seem to have been registering, after the rat made its decision, how uncertain the animal was that it was about to receive its desired reward," Mainen explained. "We tested several alternative explanations but the best explanation for the neural activity we observed was that these neurons were signaling the confidence of the animal about its decisions."

The results were surprising. "Although previous work had suggested that confidence estimates might be a complex process restricted to humans and perhaps other primates," said Kepecs, "our results, to the contrary, show that for the brain to estimate confidence in a choice is no more complex than calculating the choice itself."

How confidence can guide behavior

Having demonstrated that rat brains make confidence calcu
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Contact: Peter Tarr
tarr123@gmail.com
516-367-8455
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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