Psychiatric disorders such as addiction, depression and anxiety disorder are characterized by suboptimal decision making (DM) due to aberrant processing of negative information. However, it remains unclear which brain processes underlie suboptimal DM. One candidate brain region involved is the insular cortex (insula), which has been implicated in DM and in several psychiatric disorders. Laboratory tasks to assess DM in humans closely mimic real-life situations, providing participants with cues to guide their decisions, which can lead to winning or losing money, much like weighting information about risks and benefits when choosing between investing in stocks or bonds. However, the technology available to study the human brain is limited, whereas experiments with rodents allow for a detailed and fine-grained understanding of brain function. Importantly, in order to translate results between rodents and humans, the tasks used to assess behaviour need to be comparable, but there are currently no tasks in rodents to study cue-guided DM in the face of punishment. During the fellowship, I will study the involvement of the insula in DM when using cues to inform rats about potential punishments and benefits. To achieve this, I will: 1) Develop a novel behavioural task to assess “cue-guided risk/punishment decision making” in rats. 2) Assess the contribution of the insula by perturbing neural signalling in this brain region, and the network it is embedded in. The novel task has tremendous translational value in that it parallels tasks used in human populations and mimics real-life decisions. Therefore, the results of the project are relevant for testing the efficacy of treatment strategies targeted at the insula to alleviate psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorders and addiction.
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