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Slow drift of neural activity as a signature of impulsivity in macaque visual and prefrontal cortex

By Benjamin R Cowley, Adam C Snyder, Katerina Acar, Ryan C. Williamson, Byron M Yu, Matthew A. Smith

Posted 11 Jan 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.01.10.902403

An animal's decision depends not only on incoming sensory evidence but also on its fluctuating internal state. This internal state is a product of cognitive factors, such as fatigue, motivation, and arousal, but it is unclear how these factors influence the neural processes that encode the sensory stimulus and form a decision. We discovered that, over the timescale of tens of minutes during a perceptual decision-making task, animals slowly shifted their likelihood of reporting stimulus changes. They did this unprompted by task conditions. We recorded neural population activity from visual area V4 as well as prefrontal cortex, and found that the activity of both areas slowly drifted together with the behavioral fluctuations. We reasoned that such slow fluctuations in behavior could either be due to slow changes in how the sensory stimulus is processed or due to a process that acts independently of sensory processing. By analyzing the recorded activity in conjunction with models of perceptual decision-making, we found evidence for the slow drift in neural activity acting as an impulsivity signal, overriding sensory evidence to dictate the final decision. Overall, this work uncovers an internal state embedded in the population activity across multiple brain areas, hidden from typical trial-averaged analyses and revealed only when considering the passage of time within each experimental session. Knowledge of this cognitive factor was critical in elucidating how sensory signals and the internal state together contribute to the decision-making process.

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