2012: Shadlen

October 2012
Columbia University researcher pioneered the study of the neural basis of decision-making

Berkeley, CA. Decision-making is a fundamental aspect of our daily lives, and cognitive psychologists have studied how we make choices for decades. But until relatively recently, very little attention was paid to the neurobiological basis of decision-making. This all changed twenty years ago when Michael Shadlen, now a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, started his postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology at Stanford University. Upon joining the lab of Bill Newsome, a professor of neurobiology and former Golden Brain Award recipient, Shadlen laid the groundwork for an entirely new field of neuroscience—the study of the neural basis of decision-making. Now, stand-alone societies and multiple sessions of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Meeting are dedicated to this burgeoning research topic.

"When he and I started work on that topic in the 1990s, there was literally nothing published at all on the neural mechanisms underlying decisions," Newsome said. "Mike helped to invent a new field from scratch, and he's the single most innovative driving force in that field."

For these seminal contributions, Shadlen has been named the recipient of the 2012 Golden Brain Award from the Berkeley, California-based Minerva Foundation. The award, now in its 28th year, recognizes outstanding contributions in vision and brain research. Shadlen was honored in a private ceremony on Sunday, October 14th, at SfN's 42nd annual meeting taking place in New Orleans.

"It's very fulfilling to receive this award. I've known about the Golden Brain Award since its inception, and I saw the very first recipient give his talk when I was a graduate student, so I'm very excited and extremely honored to join that impressive group of people," said Shadlen, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

The philosophy underlying Shadlen's work closely matches that of Minerva Foundation founder Elwin Marg. "The Minerva Foundation's view is that you can understand higher brain functions through the window of visual neuroscience," Shadlen explained. "Ultimately, I want to see my work exposing the general principles of cognitive neuroscience, not limited to perceptual decision-making."

Shadlen earned his medical degree from Brown University and doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked under the direction of vision scientist Ralph Freeman. He then started his residency in neurology at Stanford University, where he shortly thereafter met Newsome to discuss research on a brain area called MT, which is involved in motion perception. During their initial meeting, Newsome mentioned problems he had been having linking neural activity in MT to perceptual abilities, and one week later, Shadlen developed a quantitative model to do just that. "This was his first step building these model-driven links between neural activity and behavior," Newsome said.

In 1996, the duo published a milestone paper entitled "Motion perception: seeing and deciding" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Since then, as a faculty member in the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, Shadlen has made rigorous measurements of neural activity and perceptual decision-making and contributed a number of influential models that describe the connection between the two. More recently, he has conducted elegant and innovative experiments to examine neural activity associated with confidence in sensory decisions, publishing the findings in Science.

"Mike is amazingly creative and deeply curious about how cognition works, and his original curiosity about cognition was driven by his experience with patients who were having difficulties with higher-order cognitive processes, like disorders of thought, attention and decision-making," Newsome said. "Based on his hands-on experience with patients, he invented very creative ways to address these questions in experiments. As a result, his work has provided insights into the neurobiological basis of visual cognition that seemed unobtainable a decade ago."

2012: Michael Shadlen