If you drive a car, you might be familiar with the situation Dr. Sameer Sheth describes: “Driving through a busy neighborhood, you approach an intersection in which the traffic light suddenly turns yellow. You have to make a split-second decision.”
A lot goes into that decision. “Your brain has to gather information that is relevant for the decision (How far away is the intersection? How fast are you going?) and ignore distracting information (kids arguing in the back seat). Your brain then has to put this information into the right context (Are you in a hurry for a meeting? At risk of losing your driver’s license?) and make the decision to hit the brake or accelerator.”
But how exactly does your brain weigh all these factors to make that split-second decision? With the help of a new $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Sameer Sheth and Dr. Guy McKhann aim to find out.
“In this research project, my lab [Functional and Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab] will study how two key regions in the frontal lobes of the human brain enable us to make complex decisions like these. We will record from individual nerve cells (neurons), as well as large groups of neurons, to determine how these regions successfully coordinate activity. The results from these studies will shed light on how our brains allow us to make informed, controlled decisions, an ability that is uniquely human.”
Understanding unique human qualities is a valuable goal, but making sense of the brain’s coordinated decision making isn’t a matter of just academic interest. As Dr. Sheth points out, many neuropsychiatric disorders (mental disorders attributable to disordered brain function) affect this process.
A disruption somewhere in this intricate procedure can cause difficulty with weighing information in context, paying attention to relevant features of a situation and ignoring irrelevant ones, and/or changing actions based on context or feedback.
“Examples of disorders of this process include mood/anxiety disorders (OCD, depression, affective aspects of chronic pain), addiction, attention deficit disorders and psychoses,” says Dr. Sheth. Understanding the biological components of our complex thought processes, he says, is “essential for the understanding and treatment of these behavioral disorders.”
While Columbia University Medical Center will take the lead in this study, the NIH grant will also enable Drs. Sheth and McKhann to collaborate with other scientists at Princeton University and Northwell Health to continue conducting this research.
In most situations, activity inside the brain is investigated from outside the skull (think MRIs and CAT scans). And in most situations, these scans provide more than enough information. But even the most advanced of these scans can’t be used for this type of research.
Gathering precise information about location (down to the neuron or group of neurons) and time to process (down to the thousandth of a second) requires recording electrical activity directly from within the brain.
Placing electrodes in the brain is actually something Drs. Sheth and McKhann do often. They do it as they treat patients with disorders like Parkinson disease or epilepsy. Recording precise activity in these patients’ brains allows the neurosurgeons to plan the surgeries that will ease their patients’ symptoms.
Some of these patients volunteer to help Drs. Sheth and McKhann with their research into decision making. While the electrodes are already in place, the volunteers perform several decision-making tasks designed by the doctors. The electrodes simply continue gathering information, and the data the doctors collect is used in research that will benefit future patients.
Dr. Sheth is grateful to the NIH for its support of his important research. But he and Dr. McKhann are also extremely grateful for the “goodwill and assistance” of their patients. “We would like to thank these patients for their generosity and contributions to this research effort,” says Dr. Sheth. “With their help, we will be able to better understand how our brains work and develop better therapies in the future.”
Thank you to our research participants, and congratulations to Dr. Sheth!
Learn more about Columbia Neurosurgeons and the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia here.
Image Credit: © geralt/pixabay
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