Dr. Vincent Ferrera of Columbia University explores the neural circuits underlying decision making. This ability allows an organism to adapt its behavior rapidly to changing circumstances, and is often impaired in patients with schizophrenia and major depression. Dr. Ferrera’s NARSAD study examined neuronal activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex region of the brain while it was engaged in decision making processes. He was awarded the Freedman Honorable Mention for demonstrating a physiological link between prefrontal cortex activity and the evaluation of sensory evidence, decision rules, and the likelihood of reward in monkeys.
The study showed that prefrontal neurons encode sensory evidence and decision rules, but are not highly sensitive to reward likelihood. This groundbreaking work will lead to further focused investigation of what specifically happens in this region of the brain when decision making occurs normally versus when it dysfunctions, potentially pointing toward treatment options for impaired decision making ability in patients with schizophrenia and major depression.