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Thinking About Thinking: How the Brain Makes Decisions

Rodin The ThinkerWe make thousands of decisions, big and small, every day. Have you ever thought about what goes on inside your brain whenever you are faced with making a choice? How does your brain know when a decision needs to be made?

Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth thinks about this all the time. In his research at the Cognitive Science and Neuromodulation Program he’s working to discover exactly what happens in the brain when we make a decision—down to the level of individual neurons.

Neurons are one of the major cell types that make up the brain. Anytime we do anything, consciously or not, neurons fire to send and receive information all over the body. But neurons are tiny, and are distributed all over the brain. You can’t just see them on an MRI scan. So how does Dr. Sheth do it?

Dr. Sheth is uniquely positioned to do this kind of in-depth study of the brain. He specializes in implanting electrodes directly into the brain to record brain activity. He uses these electrode implants to help patients suffering from epilepsy, Parkinson disease and psychiatric disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. The electrodes record brain activity so Dr. Sheth can get a detailed picture of his patients’ brain activity.

Those recordings hold a treasure trove of information. With his patients’ permission, Dr. Sheth uses that data to see what individual neurons are up to.

The Dana Foundation, an organization committed to supporting brain research, awarded Dr. Sheth his first grant for this type of research nearly five years ago. Since then his work has won more funding through the National Institutes of Health, culminating in the Cognitive Science and Neuromodulation Program.

He recently gave The Dana Foundation an update about how his research has grown and what he’s discovered so far. (You can read the entire update and interview with Dr. Sheth at The Dana Foundation website here.)

Dr. Sheth told The Dana Foundation that he’s particularly excited about one discovery so far: He and his research team have found that there is a relationship between single neurons and larger groups of neurons in decision making.

More specifically, he’s found that there are individual neurons that are sensitive to situations where there is conflicting information, or a problem. A single neuron will detect a problem and fire more quickly. Other neurons will then respond to that firing and send the message far and wide. Those neurons will bring in more information, and then a decision can be made.

Dr. Sheth says this discovery gives us a much better picture of how the brain works. And when we have a better understanding of how the brain works, we’ll be better at treating it when things go wrong, such as with psychiatric disorders. That’s why he thinks about how we think—all the time.

Learn more about Dr. Sheth at his bio page here.

Read The Dana Foundation’s interview with Dr. Sheth here.

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