Raymond Dolan studies decision-making processes in the human brain. The neuro-psychiatrist is Professor at the University College London and Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. In his research he tries to understand how emotions shape the decisions of both mentally well and ill human beings.
»How do decisions happen in the brain?«
How much do we know about the brain today?
Neuroscience as a discipline has been around for maybe 150 years. A lot of it started here in Berlin with Herrmann von Helmholtz. Since then we’ve made tremendous progress. We now have a very good idea of the scale and complexity of the human brain – a colossal “machine” consisting of around a hundred billion neurons, each with 10,000 or so different connections. We know a lot about its energy consumption, and we can create highly sophisticated maps of functions such as vision, audition, and taste. Despite all this progress, the unanswered questions still seem endless. It is very daunting. If you think of it as a journey to the top of the Himalayas, we are down in the foothills. Right now, our biggest challenge is finding the math- ematical algorithm that neurons may be running to compute everything we experience. We often refer to this as the “neuronal code”. If someone were to discover this algorithm, it would be as significant as cracking the DNA code.
Which functions of the brain are you studying?
My current research is concerned with the processes that underlie human decisions. We might think that there is a central decision-making executive sitting in our brains, something very much like the CEO of an organisation. But it turns out that decisions are multi-layered and involve different brain systems. Usually, they cooperate to find the best solution for a given situation. Yet sometimes there is a conflict Excessive operation of the habitual system is one potential explanation for pathologies, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance. We are particularly interested in what determines the precise balance between the different decision-making systems. Which brain functions and neurochemical processes are active in maintaining this equilibrium? The prime technology that we use is functional magnetic resonance imaging, which enables us to measure activity in the human brain, while it performs tasks like reading, thinking, memorizing, and emoting.
Does your research influence psychiatry?
Psychiatry has been rather divorced from neuroscience for over 100 years. But understanding the core problems in psychiatry today requires cutting-edge neuroscience. I started my research career as a psychiatrist. Then I pursued what was mainly a neuroscience agenda for 25 years. Now I want to come full circle, return to psychiatry, and apply the knowledge I have gained to understand psychiatric disorders, which are ultimately the source of so much human misery and unhappiness.
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