Discovery could help scientists design better robots.
When humans are faced with tough decisions, clusters of neurons in our brain go to war, firing in all directions until one choice eventually wins out.
What if things were simpler?
Scientists at the University of Sussex in the UK have discovered how just two neurons in the brain enable snails to make complex behavioral decisions. Their study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The researchers monitored the behavior of snails while they made decisions in their search for lettuce, one of their preferred foods. Meanwhile, they recorded activity in the snails’ brains by using electrodes to detect small electrical changes, called action potentials, in individual neurons.
According to the authors, food-searching “is an example of a goal-directed behaviour that is essential for survival,” in which an animal must be able to judge the presence or absence of a possible food source and make adaptive decisions whilst using minimal energy.
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They discovered that the core decision-making system consisted of just two neuron types — one that tells the snail’s brain that food is present, and another that tells the snail’s brain whether it is hungry or not. The snails were also shown to save energy by reducing brain activity when food is not present.
"What goes on in our brains when we make complex behavioural decisions and carry them out is poorly understood,” study lead author George Kemenes said in a press release.
"Our study reveals for the first-time how just two neurons can create a mechanism in an animal's brain which drives and optimizes complex decision making tasks. It also shows how this system helps to manage how much energy they use once they have made a decision.”
Kemenes expects these findings to help other scientists design robots that can perform complex tasks using the fewest possible components that are necessary.
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