Single-trial spike trains in parietal cortex reveal discrete steps during decision-making

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Science  10 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6244, pp. 184-187
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4056

A better way to explain neuronal activity

A brain region called the lateral intraparietal (LIP) area is involved in primate decision-making. The dominant model to explain neuronal firing in LIP assumes that neurons slowly accumulate sensory evidence in favor of one choice or another. Latimer et al. hypothesized that neurons instead exhibit rapid steps or jumps in their firing rate, reflecting discrete changes in the animal's decision state. They recorded from LIP neurons in macaque monkeys performing a motion-discrimination task. LIP spike trains in most cells involved discrete stepping dynamics rather than slow evidence integration dynamics.

Science, this issue p. 184


Neurons in the macaque lateral intraparietal (LIP) area exhibit firing rates that appear to ramp upward or downward during decision-making. These ramps are commonly assumed to reflect the gradual accumulation of evidence toward a decision threshold. However, the ramping in trial-averaged responses could instead arise from instantaneous jumps at different times on different trials. We examined single-trial responses in LIP using statistical methods for fitting and comparing latent dynamical spike-train models. We compared models with latent spike rates governed by either continuous diffusion-to-bound dynamics or discrete “stepping” dynamics. Roughly three-quarters of the choice-selective neurons we recorded were better described by the stepping model. Moreover, the inferred steps carried more information about the animal’s choice than spike counts.

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