Say you're reaching for the fruit cup at a buffet, but at the last second you switch gears and grab a cupcake instead. Emotionally, your decision is a complex stew of guilt and mouth-watering anticipation. But physically it's a simple shift: instead of moving left, your hand went right. Such split-second changes interest neuroscientists because they play a major role in diseases that involve problems with selecting an action, like Parkinson's and drug addiction.
In the March 9, 2017 online publication of the journal Neuron, scientists at the Salk Institute report that the concentration of a brain chemical called dopamine governs decisions about actions so precisely that measuring the level right before a decision allows researchers to accurately predict the outcome. Additionally, the scientists found that changing the dopamine level is sufficient to alter upcoming choice. The work may open new avenues for treating disorders both in cases where a person cannot select a movement to initiate, like Parkinson's disease, as well as those in which someone cannot stop repetitive actions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or drug addiction.
"Because we cannot do more than one thing at a time, the brain is constantly making decisions about what to do next," says Xin Jin, an assistant professor in Salk's Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory and the paper's senior author. "In most cases our brain controls these decisions at a higher level than talking directly to particular muscles, and that is what my lab mostly wants to understand better."