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Expectation, evaluation and motivation

One of the remarkable features of the mammalian brain is its ability to generate adaptive behaviour. This involves learning the value of actions in response to sensory or internal information.

These goal-directed actions involve several different processes including:

  • Motivation in pursuit of a goal
  • Selection and sequencing of actions
  • Execution with the appropriate vigour to generate a coordinated behavioural response

Furthermore, the actual outcome can be compared with the expected outcome to evaluate whether the whole process was successful, and thus drive learning.

At SWC, we are working to develop a comprehensive theory of how neural circuits in the basal ganglia implement these processes.

Current research

Our hypothesis is that each feature of a goal-directed action is controlled by a specific population of basal ganglia output neurons, each regulating either motivation, selection, sequencing, vigour, expectation or evaluation. 

The Stephenson-Jones lab has already identified two different basal ganglia output populations that are responsible for two distinct non-motor aspects of goal-directed behaviour: motivation and evaluating action outcomes.

In collaboration with the Clopath lab, the Stephenson-Jones lab is now working to systematically map and manipulate each population of basal ganglia output neurons, to understand how each contributes to component computations of goal-directed behaviour and build a realistic model that captures them.

The Duan lab is also studying expectation in the context of risk. The team are uncovering the biological basis of economic choices under risk, specifically how the brain computes expected value, compares values of different options, selects an option, and transforms that selection into an action. 

The Duan lab is also working closely with Erlich lab to study how animals’ risk preferences adapt to environmental variability. The long term goal of research in the Erlich lab is to understand how chronic stress influences economic preferences and the link between genes, neural circuits and economic decisions.