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J Physiol Paris. 2015 Feb-Jun;109(1-3):27-37. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2014.08.003. Epub 2014 Sep 7.

The neural processes underlying perceptual decision making in humans: recent progress and future directions.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, City College of the City University of New York, New York, NY 10031, United States. Electronic address:
Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland.


In the last two decades, animal neurophysiology research has made great strides towards explaining how the brain can enable adaptive action in the face of noisy sensory information. In particular, this work has identified neural signals that perform the role of a 'decision variable' which integrates sensory information in favor of a particular outcome up to an action-triggering threshold, consistent with long-standing predictions from mathematical psychology. This has provoked an intensive search for similar neural processes at work in the human brain. In this paper we review the progress that has been made in tracing the dynamics of perceptual decision formation in humans using functional imaging and electrophysiology. We highlight some of the limitations that non-invasive recording techniques place on our ability to make definitive judgments regarding the role that specific signals play in decision making. Finally, we provide an overview of our own work in this area which has focussed on two perceptual tasks - intensity change detection and motion discrimination - performed under continuous-monitoring conditions, and highlight the insights gained thus far. We show that through simple paradigm design features such as avoiding sudden intensity transients at evidence onset, a neural instantiation of the theoretical decision variable can be directly traced in the form of a centro-parietal positivity (CPP) in the standard event-related potential (ERP). We recapitulate evidence for the domain-general nature of the CPP process, being divorced from the sensory and motor requirements of the task, and re-plot data of both tasks highlighting this aspect as well as its relationship to decision outcome and reaction time. We discuss the implications of these findings for mechanistically principled research on normal and abnormal decision making in humans.


Cognitive model; Event-related potential; Evidence accumulation; Functional imaging; Neurophysiology; Noninvasive recording; Perceptual decision making

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