Time-Dependent Changes in Human Corticospinal Excitability Reveal Value-Based Competition for Action during Decision Processing
Miriam Cornelia Klein-Flugge and Sven Bestmann
J. Neurosci. 2012;32 8373-8382
Our choices often require appropriate actions to obtain a preferred outcome, but the neural underpinnings that link decision making and action selection remain largely undetermined. Recent theories propose that action selection occurs simultaneously, i.e., parallel in time, with the decision process. Specifically, it is thought that action selection in motor regions originates from a competitive process that is gradually biased by evidence signals originating in other regions, such as those specialized in value computations. Biases reflecting the evaluation of choice options should thus emerge in the motor system before the decision process is complete. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we sought direct physiological evidence for this prediction by measuring changes in corticospinal excitability in human motor cortex during value-based decisions. We found that excitability for chosen versus unchosen actions distinguishes the forthcoming choice before completion of the decision process. Both excitability and reaction times varied as a function of the subjective value-difference between chosen and unchosen actions, consistent with this effect being value-driven. This relationship was not observed in the absence of a decision. Our data provide novel evidence in humans that internally generated value-based decisions influence the competition between action representations in motor cortex before the decision process is complete. This is incompatible with models of serial processing of stimulus, decision, and action.