The brain has limited processing capacities. Attention selection processes are continuously shaping humans’ world perception. Understanding the mechanisms underlying such covert cognitive processes requires the combination of psychophysical and electrophysiological investigation methods. This combination allows researchers to describe how individual neurons and neuronal populations encode attentional function. Direct access to neuronal information through innovative electrophysiological approaches, additionally, allows the tracking of covert attention in real time. These converging approaches capture a comprehensive view of attentional function.
High-Density Electrophysiological Recordings to Assess the Dynamic Properties of Attention
Corentin Gaillard and Suliann Ben Hamed
Confidence in Decision-Making
Megan A.K. Peters
The human brain processes noisy information to help make adaptive choices under uncertainty. Accompanying these decisions about incoming evidence is a sense of confidence: a feeling about whether a decision is correct. Confidence typically covaries with the accuracy of decisions, in that higher confidence is associated with higher decisional accuracy. In the laboratory, decision confidence is typically measured by asking participants to make judgments about stimuli or information (type 1 judgments) and then to rate their confidence on a rating scale or by engaging in wagering (type 2 judgments). The correspondence between confidence and accuracy can be quantified in a number of ways, some based on probability theory and signal detection theory. But decision confidence does not always reflect only the probability that a decision is correct; confidence can also reflect many other factors, including other estimates of noise, evidence magnitude, nearby decisions, decision time, and motor movements. Confidence is thought to be computed by a number of brain regions, most notably areas in the prefrontal cortex. And, once computed, confidence can be used to drive other behaviors, such as learning rates or social interaction.
Mineralocorticoid Receptors and Glucocorticoid Receptors in HPA Stress Responses During Coping and Adaptation
Edo Ronald de Kloet and Marian Joëls
The glucocorticoid hormones cortisol and corticosterone coordinate circadian events and are master regulators of the stress response. These actions of the glucocorticoids are mediated by mineralocorticoid receptors (NR3C2, or MRs) and glucocorticoid receptors (NR3C1, or GRs). MRs bind the natural glucocorticoids cortisol and corticosterone with a 10-fold higher affinity than GRs. The glucocorticoids are inactivated only in the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS), rendering the NTS-localized MRs aldosterone-selective and involved in regulation of salt appetite. Everywhere else in the brain MRs are glucocorticoid-preferring. MR and GR are transcription factors involved in gene regulation but recently were also found to mediate rapid non-genomic actions. Genomic MRs, with a predominant localization in limbic circuits, are important for the threshold and sensitivity of the stress response system. Non-genomic MRs promote appraisal processes, memory retrieval, and selection of coping style. Activation of GRs makes energy substrates available and dampens initial defense reactions. In the brain, GR activation enhances appetitive- and fear-motivated behavior and promotes memory storage of the selected coping style in preparation of the future. Thus, MRs and GRs complement each other in glucocorticoid control of the initiation and termination of the stress response, suggesting that the balance in MR- and GR-mediated actions is crucial for homeostasis and health.
Neurobiology of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Abuse
Ruth I. Wood and Kathryn G. Wallin-Miller
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are both performance-enhancing substances and drugs of abuse. Although AAS are banned in competitive sports, they are widely used by both elite and rank-and-file athletes. All AAS are derived from testosterone, the principle endogenous androgen produced by the testes of adult men. While AAS increase muscular strength and athletic performance, they also have serious consequences for health and behavior. AAS are implicated in maladaptive behavioral and cognitive changes such as increased risk-taking and altered decision-making. However, effects of AAS on cognition are not well understood. Studies of human AAS users are limited by an inability to control for pre-existing psychopathology and behavioral differences. Furthermore, in order to understand AAS effects on behavior, it is important to discover how AAS impact the brain. Animal models of AAS abuse parallel human studies to uncover effects on cognition, decision-making, and underlying neurobiological mechanisms. In operant discounting tests, rats treated with chronic high-dose testosterone are less sensitive to effort, punishment, and delay but are more sensitive to uncertainty. Likewise, they demonstrate impaired cognitive flexibility when tested for set-shifting and reversal learning. It appears that AAS induce many of these cognitive changes via effects on the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system, particularly through the dopamine D1- and D2-like receptors in subnuclei of the nucleus accumbens. AAS also have rewarding effects mediated by similar neural circuits. In preclinical studies, animals will voluntarily self-administer AAS. Human users may develop dependence. These findings highlight the vulnerability of brain circuits controlling cognition and reward to androgens at high doses.
Understanding How Humans Learn and Adapt to Changing Environments
Daphne Bavelier and Aaron Cochrane
Compared to other animals or to artificial agents, humans are unique in the extent of their abilities to learn and adapt to changing environments. When focusing on skill learning and model-based approaches, learning can be conceived as a progression of increasing, then decreasing, dimensions of representing knowledge. First, initial learning demands exploration of the learning space and the identification of the relevant dimensions for the novel task at hand. Second, intermediate learning requires a refinement of these relevant dimensions of knowledge and behavior to continue improving performance while increasing efficiency. Such improvements utilize chunking or other forms of dimensionality reduction to diminish task complexity. Finally, late learning ensures automatization of behavior through habit formation and expertise development, thereby reducing the need to effortfully control behavior. While automatization greatly increases efficiency, there is also a trade-off with the ability to generalize, with late learning tending to be highly specific to the learned features and contexts. In each of these phases a variety of interacting factors are relevant: Declarative instructions, prior knowledge, attentional deployment, and cognitive fitness have unique roles to play. Neural contributions to processes involved also shift from earlier to later points in learning as effortfulness initially increases and then gives way to automaticity. Interestingly, video games excel at providing uniquely supportive environments to guide the learner through each of these learning stages. This fact makes video games a useful tool for both studying learning, due to their engaging nature and dynamic range of complexity, as well as engendering learning in domains such as education or cognitive training.
Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging
Jessica A. Bernard and Tracey H. Hicks
The cognitive neuroscience of aging is a large and diverse field seeking to understand cross-sectional differences and longitudinal changes in brain structure and function. Research in this field also investigates how brain differences or changes influence behavior in later life. There is consistent evidence indicating that cross-sectionally the brain is smaller in older adults (OA) relative to younger adults (YA), and this is due to longitudinal change over time. Furthermore, there are differences in functional activation patterns and the functional network architecture in the aging brain, both of which may contribute to the behavioral differences experienced by OA. Most notably, the differences in functional activation patterns suggest that perhaps the aging brain may compensate for the impacts of aging in an attempt to preserve performance. As such, several frameworks for understanding the processes of aging have taken hold resulting in testable hypotheses that link brain function and structure to behavior. Finally, in Alzheimer’s Disease, cognitive neuroscience methodologies have provided additional insights into the impacts of the disease on brain structure, function, and behavior.
Active Electroreception in Weakly Electric Fish
Angel Ariel Caputi
American gymnotiformes and African mormyriformes have evolved an active sensory system using a self-generated electric field as a carrier of signals. Objects polarized by the discharge of a specialized electric organ project their images on the skin where electroreceptors tuned to the time course of the self-generated field transduce local signals carrying information about impedance, shape, size, and location of objects, as well as electrocommunication messages, and encode them as primary afferents trains of spikes. This system is articulated with other cutaneous systems (passive electroreception and mechanoception) as well as proprioception informing the shape of the fish’s body. Primary afferents project on the electrosensory lobe where electrosensory signals are compared with expectation signals resulting from the integration of recent past electrosensory, other sensory, and, in the case of mormyriformes, electro- and skeleton-motor corollary discharges. This ensemble of signals converges on the apical dendrites of the principal cells where a working memory of the recent past, and therefore predictable input, is continuously built up and updated as a pattern of synaptic weights. The efferent neurons of the electrosensory lobe also project to the torus and indirectly to other brainstem nuclei that implement automatic electro- and skeleton-motor behaviors. Finally, the torus projects via the preglomerular nucleus to the telencephalon where cognitive functions, including “electroperception” of shape-, size- and impedance-related features of objects, recognition of conspecifics, perception based decisions, learning, and abstraction, are organized.