Decision-Making in the Leech Nervous System

  • Esch T
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Previous models of behavioral choice have described two types of hierarchy, a decision hierarchy, in which different classes of decisions are made at each level (Tinbergen, 1951), and a behavioral hierarchy, in which one behavior will take precedence over others (Davis, 1985). Most experimental work on the neuronal basis of decision-making has focussed on the latter of these: a behavioral hierarchy is described for an animal, and the neuronal basis for this hierarchy, hypothesized to depend on inhibitory interactions, is investigated. Although the concept of "dedicated command neurons" has been useful for guiding these studies, it appears that such neurons are rare. We present evidence that in the leech, most neurons, including high-level decision neurons, are active in more than one behavior. We include data from one newly-identified neuron that elicits both swimming and crawling motor patterns. We suggest that decisions are made by a "combinatorial code": what behavior is produced depends on the specific combination of decision neurons that are active at a particular time. Finally, we discuss how decision neurons may be arranged into a decision hierarchy, with neurons at each sequential level responsible for choosing between a narrower range of behaviors. We suggest additional sensory information is incorporated at each level to inform the decision.

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  • T. Esch

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