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Brain Topogr. 2012 Jan;25(1):73-96. doi: 10.1007/s10548-011-0210-1. Epub 2011 Nov 20.

Neural signatures of economic parameters during decision-making: a functional MRI (FMRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and autonomic monitoring study.

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  • 1Scientific Department, Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Carlo Besta, Milan, MI, Italy.


Adaptive behaviour requires an ability to obtain rewards by choosing between different risky options. Financial gambles can be used to study effective decision-making experimentally, and to distinguish processes involved in choice option evaluation from outcome feedback and other contextual factors. Here, we used a paradigm where participants evaluated 'mixed' gambles, each presenting a potential gain and a potential loss and an associated variable outcome probability. We recorded neural responses using autonomic monitoring, electroencephalography (EEG) and functional neuroimaging (fMRI), and used a univariate, parametric design to test for correlations with the eleven economic parameters that varied across gambles, including expected value (EV) and amount magnitude. Consistent with behavioural economic theory, participants were risk-averse. Gamble evaluation generated detectable autonomic responses, but only weak correlations with outcome uncertainty were found, suggesting that peripheral autonomic feedback does not play a major role in this task. Long-latency stimulus-evoked EEG potentials were sensitive to expected gain and expected value, while alpha-band power reflected expected loss and amount magnitude, suggesting parallel representations of distinct economic qualities in cortical activation and central arousal. Neural correlates of expected value representation were localized using fMRI to ventromedial prefrontal cortex, while the processing of other economic parameters was associated with distinct patterns across lateral prefrontal, cingulate, insula and occipital cortices including default-mode network and early visual areas. These multimodal data provide complementary evidence for distributed substrates of choice evaluation across multiple, predominantly cortical, brain systems wherein distinct regions are preferentially attuned to specific economic features. Our findings extend biologically-plausible models of risky decision-making while providing potential biomarkers of economic representations that can be applied to the study of deficits in motivational behaviour in neurological and psychiatric patients.

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