Decision-Making in the Primate Brain

Thumbnail Image




Drucker, Caroline Beth


Platt, Michael L
Brannon, Elizabeth M

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



Making decisions is fundamental to everything we do, yet it can be impaired in various disorders and conditions. While research into the neural basis of decision-making has flourished in recent years, many questions remain about how decisions are instantiated in the brain. Here we explored how primates make abstract decisions and decisions in social contexts, as well as one way to non-invasively modulate the brain circuits underlying decision-making. We used rhesus macaques as our model organism. First we probed numerical decision-making, a form of abstract decision-making. We demonstrated that monkeys are able to compare discrete ratios, choosing an array with a greater ratio of positive to negative stimuli, even when this array does not have a greater absolute number of positive stimuli. Monkeys’ performance in this task adhered to Weber’s law, indicating that monkeys—like humans—treat proportions as analog magnitudes. Next we showed that monkeys’ ordinal decisions are influenced by spatial associations; when trained to select the fourth stimulus from the bottom in a vertical array, they subsequently selected the fourth stimulus from the left—and not from the right—in a horizontal array. In other words, they begin enumerating from one side of space and not the other, mirroring the human tendency to associate numbers with space. These and other studies confirmed that monkeys’ numerical decision-making follows similar patterns to that of humans, making them a good model for investigations of the neurobiological basis of numerical decision-making.

We sought to develop a system for exploring the neuronal basis of the cognitive and behavioral effects observed following transcranial magnetic stimulation, a relatively new, non-invasive method of brain stimulation that may be used to treat clinical disorders. We completed a set of pilot studies applying offline low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the macaque posterior parietal cortex, which has been implicated in numerical processing, while subjects performed a numerical comparison and control color comparison task, and while electrophysiological activity was recorded from the stimulated region of cortex. We found tentative evidence in one paradigm that stimulation did selectively impair performance in the number task, causally implicating the posterior parietal cortex in numerical decisions. In another paradigm, however, we manipulated the subject’s reaching behavior but not her number or color comparison performance. We also found that stimulation produced variable changes in neuronal firing and local field potentials. Together these findings lay the groundwork for detailed investigations into how different parameters of transcranial magnetic stimulation can interact with cortical architecture to produce various cognitive and behavioral changes.

Finally, we explored how monkeys decide how to behave in competitive social interactions. In a zero-sum computer game in which two monkeys played as a shooter or a goalie during a hockey-like “penalty shot” scenario, we found that shooters developed complex movement trajectories so as to conceal their intentions from the goalies. Additionally, we found that neurons in the dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex played a role in generating this “deceptive” behavior. We conclude that these regions of prefrontal cortex form part of a circuit that guides decisions to make an individual less predictable to an opponent.






Drucker, Caroline Beth (2016). Decision-Making in the Primate Brain. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.