Neuronal basis of sequential foraging decisions in a patchy environment

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Deciding when to leave a depleting resource to exploit another is a fundamental problem for all decision makers. The neuronal mechanisms mediating patch-leaving decisions remain unknown. We found that neurons in primate (Macaca mulatta) dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, an area that is linked to reward monitoring and executive control, encode a decision variable signaling the relative value of leaving a depleting resource for a new one. Neurons fired during each sequential decision to stay in a patch and, for each travel time, these responses reached a fixed threshold for patch-leaving. Longer travel times reduced the gain of neural responses for choosing to stay in a patch and increased the firing rate threshold mandating patch-leaving. These modulations more closely matched behavioral decisions than any single task variable. These findings portend an understanding of the neural basis of foraging decisions and endorse the unification of theoretical and experimental work in ecology and neuroscience.

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Figure 1: Patch-leaving task.
Figure 2: Monkeys obey the marginal value theorem in a virtual patchy foraging task.
Figure 3: Firing rates of dACC neurons integrate patch residence time and travel time in computations occurring over multiple actions.
Figure 4: Firing rates of dACC neurons rise to a threshold associated with patch abandonment.
Figure 5: Travel time governs both neuronal response gain and threshold.


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We thank S. Heilbronner for comments on design, analysis and writing. This research was supported by US National Institutes of Health grant R01EY013496 (M.L.P.), a Fellowship from the Tourette Syndrome Association (B.Y.H.) and US National Institutes of Health grant K99 DA027718-01 (B.Y.H.).

Author information

B.Y.H. designed the experiment and collected the data. B.Y.H. and J.M.P. contributed to data analysis. B.Y.H., J.M.P. and M.L.P. wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Benjamin Y Hayden.

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Hayden, B., Pearson, J. & Platt, M. Neuronal basis of sequential foraging decisions in a patchy environment. Nat Neurosci 14, 933–939 (2011) doi:10.1038/nn.2856

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