Spur of the moment purchase? Blame your orbitofrontal cortex

2012

Challenge

Scientists have long assumed that an area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex plays a role in decision-making. While the idea gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community, it was based on correlative evidence. New research was needed to determine exactly what role the region plays, and how that may affect our understanding of certain diseases, for example addiction disorders.

Advance

IRP researchers led by Geoffrey Schoenbaum, M.D., Ph.D., designed a series of experiments and discovered that the orbitofrontal cortex in fact does play a role in decision-making, but only in spur-of-the-moment, quick decisions and not decisions made previously or through habit. This finding was true for both decision-making and learning—in other words, if a decision is assumed and doesn’t occur, that knowledge can be used to drive the process of learning.

Impact

This research fundamentally changed scientific understanding of the orbitofrontal cortex’s role in normal behavior and how its alteration may contribute to behaviors seen in addiction disorders. Future work will characterize how drugs such as cocaine adversely affect this region of the brain, as well as identify pre-clinical approaches to restore function to damaged regions.

Publications

Jones JL, Esber GR, McDannald MA, Gruber AJ, Hernandez A, Mirenzi A, Schoenbaum G. (2012). Orbitofrontal cortex supports behavior and learning using inferred but not cached values. Science. 338(6109), 953-6.