Decision-Making in the Brain Mapped

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Behavioral control and decision-making take part in different regions of the brain's frontal lobe, new research shows

The study effectively created a map of the frontal lobes, making it possible for patients with brain injuries to get an accurate prognosis early in treatment.

"That knowledge will be tremendously useful for prognosis after brain injury," Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech and a coauthor of the study published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), said in a press release.

"Many people suffer injury to their frontal lobes — for instance, after a head injury during an automobile accident — but the precise pattern of the damage will determine their eventual impairment," he added.

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When you're making a decision, several different parts of the brain might be activated. How a person functions after a brain injury depends on precisely where a brain injury occurs. Other parts of the brain might compensate, allowing the person to function typically, or the person might be left with a lifelong hardship in making decisions.

"We can use our lesion maps and compare the location of damaged brain areas in new patients," Jan Glascher, lead author of the study and a visiting associate in psychology at Caltech, said in an email interview. "This way we can predict what impairments these new patients will likely have. This can facilitate medical diagnoses and spark ideas for treatment strategies."

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To tease apart which regions of the brain are responsible for what, the researchers analyzed data that University of Iowa scientists had accumulated over a period of 30 years. (Another brain study published this week also involved research from the University of Iowa.) The university has the world's largest lesion patient registry, so researchers were able to map brain activity in about 350 people with lesions in their frontal lobes.

"This is first large-scale study to map specific areas that are necessary to perform certain high-level control functions — for instance, flexibly switching between two different tasks," Glascher said.

Photo credit: Corbis Images