Christopher Harvey, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology
All decisions follow the process of accumulating evidence over time and using that information to make a categorical behavioral decision. If you think about choosing a candidate to vote for, that decision process includes activities like weighing the candidate’s policies and viewpoints. In more simple decisions, such as walking down the street, how does your brain use information like street signs, landmarks, and your knowledge about the world to make a decision to turn left or right at an upcoming intersection in order to reach your destination? My lab focuses on how decision-making is implemented by neuronal circuits in the cerebral cortex.
We study the neural substrate of basic navigation decisions. Essentially, we train mice to run on a spherical treadmill that is surrounded by an IMAX-like screen to create a virtual-reality world. When a mouse is in the test environment, we put a microscope over its head and take real-time recordings of neural activity as it makes decisions. What we’re trying to extract are patterns of neuronal activity that occur at the moment when the mouse is making a decision, and how neurons across the different parts of the brain communicate to facilitate decision-making.
This research has relevance for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders, which are defined not only by behavioral dysfunction, but in many cases, abnormal communication between neurons in the brain. As we begin to unveil some of the general principles of neuronal communication during decision-making, our hope is to understand how such circuits may malfunction in disease states.