Two discrete mechanisms in the human brain that control the balance between speed and accuracy when making decisions have been pinpointed by University of Oxford researchers.

The findings shed new light on the networks that regulate how quickly we choose an option, and how much information we need to make that choice. A more detailed understanding of this intricate wiring in the brain holds the key to developing better treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Senior author Peter Brown, Professor of Experimental Neurology at the University of Oxford, said:

“Previous behavioual studies of decision making do not tell us about the actual events or networks that are responsible for making speed-accuracy adjustments. We wanted to address this by measuring the exact location and timing of electrical activity in the subthalamic nucleus and comparing the results with behavioral data collected while a decision-making task is being performed."

Speed vs. Accuracy

The fundamental trade-off between speed and accuracy in decision making has been studied for more than a century, with a number of studies suggesting that the subthalamic nucleus region of the brain plays a key role.

Brown and his team first studied the reaction times of 11 patients with Parkinson’s disease and 18 healthy participants, who were each asked to perform a moving-dots task. This required them to decide whether a cloud of moving dots appeared to be moving to the left or the right.

The difficulty of the task was varied by changing the number of dots moving in one direction, and the participants were given randomly alternating instructions to perform the task with either speed or accuracy.

The researchers found that participants made much faster decisions when the task was easier - with the dots moving in a single direction - and when instructed to make a quick decision. They also found, in line with previous studies, that participants made significantly more errors during tests where they spent longer making a decision after being instructed to emphasise accuracy.

Subthalamic Nucleus Activity

Using a computational model, they saw that it took longer in the more difficult tests for the brain to accumulate the necessary information to reach a critical threshold and make a decision. When the participants were asked to focus on speed, this threshold was significantly lower than when they focused on accuracy.

First author and postdoctoral fellow Damian Herz said:

“The next step was to determine the activated networks in the brain that control these behavioral modifications and the trade-off between fast and accurate decisions. We measured the electrical activity of groups of nerve cells within the subthalamic nucleus in patients with Parkinson’s disease, who had recently been treated with deep brain stimulation. We found two distinct neural networks that differ in the way they are ordered and the way they respond to tasks.

One network increases the amount of information required before executing a decision and is therefore more likely to be activated when accuracy is important, while the second network tends to lower this threshold, especially when the choice needs to be made quickly."

The findings add to the increasing evidence that the prefrontal cortex region of the brain contributes to decision making and opens up further interesting avenues to explore.

The research was funded in part by the Medical Research Council and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

Damian M Herz et al Distinct mechanisms mediate speed-accuracy adjustments in cortico-subthalamic networks eLife (2017). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.21481

Image: Heidi Cartwright Wellcome Images

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter