A LOOK UNDER THE HEAD
What Can Brain Mechanics Tell Us About Decision-Making?

Columbia’s Dr. Michael Shadlen speaks at NIH.
Columbia’s Dr. Michael Shadlen speaks at NIH.

Researchers are closer than ever to understanding how you make up your mind. What’s more, they may be able to quantify your thought process and perhaps even why you make the decisions you do. If that prospect freaks you out, don’t worry. The research tells us about how the brain achieves these feats, not what any individual’s brain is doing as you muse about this or that.

For much of the past two decades, Dr. Michael Shadlen, professor and HHMI investigator in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University, and his colleagues have been studying decision- making from the inside out—examining mechanisms of the brain known to be involved in choice. Now his group is pushing the boundaries of that research.

“A decision is a commitment to a proposition among alternatives that arises through a process of deliberation,” Shadlen said at a recent NIH Neuroscience Seminar, “and I think the neuromechanisms of decision- making offer a window on higher brain function and cognition.”

Calling himself a “kind of a grandchild of the [NEI] Lab of Sensorimotor Research,” which sponsored his lecture, Shadlen described two studies, one on reasoning from symbols and the other that connects memory to decision-making.

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THE TEXAS TORNADO
NLM Commemorates Heart Surgeon DeBakey

Dr. Michael DeBakey (r) once treated Jerry Lewis.
Dr. Michael DeBakey (r) once treated Jerry Lewis.

Anyone who has ever had heart surgery owes a debt of gratitude to the late Dr. Michael DeBakey. Today, coronary bypass is considered a routine operation but heart disease wasn’t even treatable back when DeBakey graduated from medical school. His work made cardiovascular surgery possible; his inventions and revolutionary procedures continue to save countless lives.

A world-renowned surgeon, innovator, educator and medical research advocate, DeBakey performed more than 60,000 operations and published more than 1,000 medical reports in his lifetime. He continued working as a surgeon in Houston until he was almost 90. In 2008, months after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, he died of natural causes at the age of 99. His boundless energy and grueling schedule had earned him the nickname the Texas Tornado.

“Dr. DeBakey was truly a force…who produced much positive change, all wrapped up in American values, ingenuity, hard work and commitment,” said Dr. Shelley McKellar, who is the Hannah chair in the history of medicine at Western University in London, Canada. “And he instilled a hope for many good things to come.”

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