How do we make decisions?
How far will you travel to buy your favourite cookie? And why are you sometimes willing to do this effortful journey, and sometimes you just cannot be bothered?
In our lab, we are interested in the neural and computational mechanisms that underlie decision making and learning. We want to know the factors that contribute to decision making and how we form these representations in the first place.
Are adolescents making different decisions?
The brain undergoes fundamental changes during childhood and adolescence. But we know little how these changes in brain structure and function influence our cognition. We investigate whether and how children and adolescents differ in their decision making and learning. We thereby particularly focus on what happens if an adolescent develops different than its peers, and how such altered cognitive development is linked to the emergence of psychiatric disorders during adolescence.
How is decision making altered in psychiatric disorders?
Many psychiatric disorders are associated with altered decision making and learning processes. We investigate the neural and computational mechanisms that underlie these altered cognitive processes. For example, we investigate why patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) need to carry out the same actions – such as locking the door – over and over again. Is it just a habit? Or is it because they do not trust in what they have done just before? Or is there a dissociation between what they believe and what actions they carry out? If we are able to understand the neural and cognitive mechanisms that drive such compulsive behaviours, we might be able to develop novel and better interventions to help those that are suffering from mental illnesses.
What methods do we use?
We use a broad range of methods, encompassing behavioural experiments, computational modelling, various neuroimaging techniques, and pharmacology. We conduct studies in the general population, participants with mental health problems, as well as children and adolescents.
We call our approach ‘Computational Psychiatry’, which means that we use mathematical models (similar to the ones used to train robots) to understand how the brain processes information. We develop novel games (we call them tasks) that allow us to probe specific processes in decision making and to study how certain brain regions are involved in computing them. Our research often focuses on topics in decision making that we assume to be altered in patients with mental health problems. By combining both basic cognitive neuroscience and clinical studies, we bridge the gaps between brain and psychiatric symptoms and get closer at understanding the neural processes underlying psychiatric disorders.
We ask our participants to make decisions while they are playing one or several of our games. These decisions can be very different, from simple gambles to complex games in which you have to gather novel information.
We use a variety of neuroimaging methods that help us understand how the brain makes decisions. Some methods, such as Magnetoencephalography (MEG) are entirely passive, and we just record the electromagnetic waves that are elicited by the brain. For other methods, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), you need to lie in a big magnet and we can record how your brain activity changes when you make decisions. During all of these methods, we ask our participants to play our games, to just rest or to watch a movie.
For more information about these neuroimaging methods, have a look here.