Decision computations as a window into our mental life

We like to think that we make smart choices. What are the ingredients that make up a ‘good’ decision? We can translate this fuzzy question into a precise, mathematically defined decision algorithm – a series of computations that form a decision. For example, humans and rodents compute confidence and value to adjust the amount of time we engage in an activity. Such economic decision models offer a window into the inner workings – and failures – of our mind.

Neural circuit structure underlying decisions

Thousands of neurons in many brain areas communicate in complex networks and eventually realize a decision. How can we hope to reverse engineer a neural circuit for complex behavior? We approach this challenge from an experimental and computational angle.  By using novel engineering and genetic technology to measure large neuronal circuits, we develop dynamical systems models of cortex that are rooted in its underlying circuit structure. We hope to reveal computational circuit principles for decision-making.

Neuromodulation of cortical dynamics

Neuromodulators such as dopamine and serotonin play essential functions in cognition. Most mind-altering drugs change neuromodulator signaling and many psychiatric conditions are thought to arise from impaired neuromodulatory systems. We make use of state-of-the-art genetic tools to precisely measure and manipulate neuromodulators and their receptors. Our main hypothesis is that dopamine and serotonin exert tailored control of cortical circuits that implement decision computations – and thereby change how we think and behave.

Drugs and altered decision computations

What happens to your brain on drugs? By understanding how the brain’s own chemicals alter cognition, we hope to learn how existing and novel drugs change our minds. In a computational psychiatry framework, we study subjective experiences as decision computations in humans and animals. This enables mechanistic neuroscientific inquiry of how drugs produce subjective experiences such as hallucinations or emotions. Our goal is to learn how drugs can alter and rescue decision computations and thereby improve our mental lives.