Researchers Spot Brain's 'Choice Cells'

These neurons assign relative values to actions or things, experts explain

MONDAY, April 24, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Neurons that encode values that individuals assign to different items, such as food, have been identified by Harvard Medical School researchers.

The findings of the study, conducted in monkeys, may also lead to a better understanding of "choice deficit" disorders such as compulsive gambling, drug abuse and eating disorders.

These neurons were identified in an area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The study appears in the current issue of Nature.

"We have long known that different neurons in various parts of the brain respond to separate attributes, such as quantity, color and taste. But when we make a choice, for example, between different foods, we combine all these attributes -- we assign a value to each available item," study author Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, a research fellow in biology, said in a prepared statement.

"The neurons we have identified encode the value individuals assign to the available items when they make choices based on subjective preferences, a behavior called 'economic choice,'" he said.

Choosing between investing in bonds or stocks or deciding to work less to enjoy more leisure time are everyday examples of economic choice.

Previous research found that lesions in the OFC can result in choice deficits, such as eating disorders, abnormal social behavior and compulsive gambling. The OFC has also been implicated in drug abuse. This new study establishes a more direct link between OFC activity and the process underlying choice behavior, the researchers said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about eating disorders.

Robert Preidt

Robert Preidt

Updated on February 04, 2008

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