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Neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex encode economic value


Economic choice is the behaviour observed when individuals select one among many available options. There is no intrinsically ‘correct’ answer: economic choice depends on subjective preferences. This behaviour is traditionally the object of economic analysis1 and is also of primary interest in psychology2. However, the underlying mental processes and neuronal mechanisms are not well understood. Theories of human and animal choice1,2,3 have a cornerstone in the concept of ‘value’. Consider, for example, a monkey offered one raisin versus one piece of apple: behavioural evidence suggests that the animal chooses by assigning values to the two options4. But where and how values are represented in the brain is unclear. Here we show that, during economic choice, neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18 (OFC) encode the value of offered and chosen goods. Notably, OFC neurons encode value independently of visuospatial factors and motor responses. If a monkey chooses between A and B, neurons in the OFC encode the value of the two goods independently of whether A is presented on the right and B on the left, or vice versa. This trait distinguishes the OFC from other brain areas in which value modulates activity related to sensory or motor processes19,20,21,22,23,24,25. Our results have broad implications for possible psychological models, suggesting that economic choice is essentially choice between goods rather than choice between actions. In this framework, neurons in the OFC seem to be a good candidate network for value assignment underlying economic choice.

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We thank K. Irwin, T. LaFratta, D. Averbuch, J. LeBlanc, S. Peled and J. Harper for technical assistance and animal care; E. Brown for a discussion on the statistical analysis; and T. Herrington, D. Freedman and E. Bizzi for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by postdoctoral fellowships from the Lefler Foundation and from the Harvard Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative (to C.P.-S.) and by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (to J.A.A.). Author Contributions C.P.-S. performed all aspects of the study, including the design of the experiment, collecting and analysing the data, and writing the manuscript. J.A.A. assisted in experimental design, data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Camillo Padoa-Schioppa.

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Figure 1: Experimental design.
Figure 2: Activity of one neuron.
Figure 3: Activity of six neurons.
Figure 4: Time course.


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