Stanford researchers create system that displays decision-making process

Pamela Cruz. Peninsula 360 Press [P360P].

A team of neuroscientists and engineers at Stanford University has developed a system that can display the neural process of decision making in real time, including the mental process of switching between options before expressing a final choice.

These scientists and engineers developed a system that read and decoded the activity of monkey brain cells while asking them to identify whether an animation of moving dots shifted slightly to the left or right. 

The system successfully revealed the monkeys' continuous decision-making process in real time, with the ebb and flow of indecision along the way, referred to a paper published by the university.

Subsequently, the researchers were even able to influence the monkeys' final decisions through subliminal manipulations of the movement of dots.

"Basically, much of our cognition is due to ongoing neural activity that is not overtly reflected in behavior, so the exciting thing about this research is that we have shown that we can now identify and interpret some of these covert internal neural states."

William Newsome , Professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine

"We are opening a window into a world of cognition that has been opaque to science until now," added Newsome, who is also the Vincent VC Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute .

It is necessary to understand that neuroscience studies of decision making have generally involved estimating the average activity of brain cell populations in hundreds of trials. 

However, this process overlooks the complexities of a single decision and the fact that each instance of decision making is slightly different.

"Cognition is really complex and, when averaged over a lot of evidence, important details about how we arrive at our perceptions and how we make our decisions are lost."

Jessica Verhein, neuroscience student and co-lead author of the paper

For the experiments, monkeys were fitted with a neural implant the size of a pinky fingernail that reported the activity of 100 to 200 individual neurons every 10 milliseconds while digital dots were displayed scrolling on a screen. 

The researchers placed the implant in the dorsal premotor cortex and primary motor cortex because, in previous research, they found that neural signals from these areas of the brain convey the animals' decisions and their confidence in those decisions.

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