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Sweet or savory? New research on how the brain makes preference-based decisions

how the brain makes preference-based decisionsResearchers have found a direct window into the brain systems involved in making everyday decisions based on preference.

The study, led by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, and recently published in Nature Communications, offers crucial insight into the neural mechanisms underlying our decision-making process, opening up new avenues for the investigation of preference-based choices in humans.

Whether we decide to opt for a piece of apple or a piece of cake is, for example, a preference-based decision. How our brains arrive at such decisions – as well as choices that rely on our subjective valuation of different alternatives – is currently a popular research topic.

Previously it was unclear where the brain implements preference-based choices and whether it uses a mechanism similar to when we make decisions purely based on the perceptual properties of the alternatives (like choosing the bigger of two items).

Study lead Dr. Philiastides said: “Our research suggests that preference-based and perceptual decisions might share a common underlying mechanism in the brain. Our findings also suggest that preference-based decisions might be represented in the same brain areas that plan the action to execute the decision, i.e., the hand reaching to grab the preferred item.”

Dr. Philiastides added that the findings have important implications for a broad range of socioeconomic problems ranging from public policy analysis, such as informing health behaviors, to brain-informed advertisement strategies and product design.

The study presented participants with pairs of snacks, like a chocolate bar and a pack of crisps, and asked them to choose their preferred item. To identify the brain areas involved in these decisions, the team used a state-of-the-art multimodal brain imaging procedure. Volunteers wore an EEG cap (to measure their brain electrical activity) while being simultaneously scanned in an MRI machine.

An EEG cap records neural activity (tiny electrical signals on the surface of the scalp), providing information about “when” a certain event takes place in the brain and how it unfolds in time, while functional MRI provides information on “where” this activity happens in the brain.

The EEG revealed that decision activity unfolds gradually over time and persists until one commits to a choice. This EEG activity was then localized with functional MRI in the posterior medial frontal cortex of those who participated in the study, a brain region that has not been previously linked directly with preference-based decisions.

 

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