Chocolate, hibiscus or spinach ice-cream? Many decisions we make require arbitrating between novelty (e.g., hibiscus) and the benefits of familiar options (e.g., chocolate). This is called the exploration-exploitation trade-off and humans rely on different exploration strategies to make their decision. Exploration strategies vary in performance and computational requirements. The simplest strategy, value-free random exploration, is to ignore prior knowledge and to choose entirely randomly. Such strategy may lead to suboptimal performance (e.g., choosing the disgusting spinach ice-cream), but allows to spare cognitive resources. This is of particular interest when access to cognitive resources is limited and prior knowledge uncertain, such as in development and mental health disorders. In a cross-sectional developmental study, we demonstrate that value-free random exploration is used more at a younger age, in line with the idea that we need to spare more cognitive resources at an earlier age as our brain is still developing. Additionally, in a large-sample online study, we show that value-free random exploration is specifically associated to impulsivity, suggesting an adaptive role for impulsivity, i.e., a way to …
Why do most mental health illnesses first manifest before adulthood? Our group has launched a new smartphone app to investigate how brain development is linked to mental health in a new citizen science project. The Brain Explorer app (www.brainexplorer.net) uses the latest state-of-the-art insights from neuroscience research to investigate brain functions in fun and entertaining games for young and old. By playing these games, people can learn about their own brain functions, and at the same time help the researchers to better understand how brain functions are related to the emergence of mental health problems. “We know that the brain changes substantially during adolescence”, says Dr Tobias Hauser, lead scientist on the project, “but we do not know how impaired brain development causes mental health problems. This app will help us understand why mental health problems arise during adolescence.” A better understanding of how abnormal brain development leads to mental health problems will allow researchers to build new models to predict emerging psychiatric illnesses and can help develop novel interventions. Everyone can contribute to research …
In a recent paper that we recently published in Nature Neuroscience, we present data from a longitudinal cohort study (the NSPN project). We repeatedly acquired MRI scans from over 300 adolescents and followed them over time. Using a specific marked (magentization transfer saturation) that indexes myelination (the insulation of brain connections), we show that adolescence undergoes fundamental reorganisation during adolescence. A wide-spread myelin-related growth is thereby present in both white and gray matter. Looking at traits of impulsivity and compulsivity, we then show that scoring high on these dimensions is related to a reduced growth in prefrontal brain areas. Our study thus links adolescent brain development to prychiatric traits during a periode when many mental health problems emerge. More information can be found here: Ziegler G*, Hauser TU*, Moutoussis M, Bullmore ET, Goodyer IM, Fonagy P, Jones PB, NSPN Consortium, Lindenberger U & Dolan RJ (2019). Compulsivity and impulsivity are linked to distinct developmental trajectories of fronto-striatal myelinatioCompulsivity and impulsivity traits linked to attenuated developmental frontostriatal myelination trajectoriesn. Nature Neuroscience
I had the pleasure to co-author two papers that provide substantial new insight nto the mechanisms underlying cognition. In a recent paper by Nitzan Shahar, he assesses the reliability of the famous ‘two-step task’ and describes how to improve the reliability of this test. This is critical if we want to adequately capture the functioning of multiple reasoning-systems in health and disorder. In a second paper by Philipp Schwartenbeck, he uses computational modelling to describe to forms of goal-directed exploration. While one of them is to learn environmental contingencies, the other form helps determine in which state an agent is. These forms of goal-directed exploration thus serve different functions and are believed to be important contributors to decision making. Schwartenbeck P, Passecker J, Hauser TU, FitzGerald THB, Kronbichler M & Friston K (2019). Computational mechanisms of curiosity and goal-directed exploration. eLife doi:10.1101/589713 Shahar N, Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, Moran R, Keramati M, NSPN Consortium & Dolan RJ (2019). Improving the reliability of model-based decision-making estimates in the two-stage decision task with reaction-times and drift-diffusion modeling. …
In a recent paper that we have just published in Journal of Neuroscience, we show that Information Gathering can be modulated using the noradrenergic Beta-Receptorblocker Propranolol. Upon a single dose propranolol, we found a reduction in information gathering. Computational modelling revealed that this is due to an earlier rise of an internal urgency signal, which promotes timely decisions. This could be interesting in the context of OCD, because we found a delay in this urgency signal in patients with OCD. Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, Purg N, Dayan P* & Dolan RJ* (2018). Beta-blocker propranolol modulates decision urgency during sequential information gathering. J Neurosci 38 (32) 7170-7178
Why do so many mental health problems emerge during adolescence? What are the developmental processes in cognition and brain that go awry and lead to psychiatric disorders? The Developmental Computational Psychiatry lab uses modern cognitive neuroscience and computational modelling methods to understand the how deviations from normative developmental trajectories can lead to the emergence of psychiatric symptoms and how we may be able to detect and intervene before such processes go awry. Our lab is based at the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London. Our research is supported by Wellcome, Royal Society, Jacobs Foundation, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, Medical Research Foundation, and the Max Planck Society.
It is my great pleasure to announce that I was awarded a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society to establish my own group at the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging. There will be opportunities for working with me – so please get in touch if you are interested in doing a PhD or PostDoc in decision neuroscience and computational psychiatry.
We just published a new paper in Translational Psychiatry, where we investigate information gathering behaviour across a compulsivity spectrum. Crucially, we recruited subjects with high or low obsessive-compulsive symptoms, but which were matched for other psychiatric dimensions, such as depressive symptoms. We found that these subjects differed in the extent that they gathered information before making a decision. We thus expend our previous findings in which we show a similar difference in juvenile OCD patients. Our findings thus speak for an increased information gathering being a marker for a compulsive dimensions, which exceeds a mere clinical distinction. further reading: Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, Iannaccone R, Brem S, Walitza S, Drechsler R*, Dayan P* & Dolan RJ* (2017). Increased decision thresholds enhance information gathering performance in juvenile obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). PLoS Comput Biol 13(4): e1005440. Hauser TU, Moutoussis M, NSPN Consortium, Dayan P* & Dolan RJ* (2017). Increased decision thresholds trigger extended information gathering across the compulsivity spectrum. Nat Translat Psychiatry 7(12):1296
A friend of mine, Nora Raschle, recently launched an excellent website that provides lots of materials and facts around the brain and science in general. I have to say this is a brilliant resource, especially for children that want to learn about the brain. Please go and visit https://bornascientist.wordpress.com/. Part of the website also portrays scientists interviewing them why they do science. Here are my answers to these questions: https://bornascientist.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/decision-making-and-solving-the-unknown/
I am very happy that I received a Research Fellowship from the Jacobs Foundation. This Fellowship will allow me to investigate the mechanisms underlying curiosity during development. I will also become part of a great network of scientists that are interested in development during childhood and adolescence. If you want to know more about the project and the network, please have a look here: https://jacobsfoundation.org/en/activity/jacobs-foundation-research-fellows/