Accuracy and response-time distributions for decision-making: linear perfect integrators versus nonlinear attractor-based neural circuits

J Comput Neurosci. 2013 Dec;35(3):261-94. doi: 10.1007/s10827-013-0452-x. Epub 2013 Apr 23.


Animals choose actions based on imperfect, ambiguous data. "Noise" inherent in neural processing adds further variability to this already-noisy input signal. Mathematical analysis has suggested that the optimal apparatus (in terms of the speed/accuracy trade-off) for reaching decisions about such noisy inputs is perfect accumulation of the inputs by a temporal integrator. Thus, most highly cited models of neural circuitry underlying decision-making have been instantiations of a perfect integrator. Here, in accordance with a growing mathematical and empirical literature, we describe circumstances in which perfect integration is rendered suboptimal. In particular we highlight the impact of three biological constraints: (1) significant noise arising within the decision-making circuitry itself; (2) bounding of integration by maximal neural firing rates; and (3) time limitations on making a decision. Under conditions (1) and (2), an attractor system with stable attractor states can easily best an integrator when accuracy is more important than speed. Moreover, under conditions in which such stable attractor networks do not best the perfect integrator, a system with unstable initial states can do so if readout of the system's final state is imperfect. Ubiquitously, an attractor system with a nonselective time-dependent input current is both more accurate and more robust to imprecise tuning of parameters than an integrator with such input. Given that neural responses that switch stochastically between discrete states can "masquerade" as integration in single-neuron and trial-averaged data, our results suggest that such networks should be considered as plausible alternatives to the integrator model.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Linear Models
  • Neural Networks, Computer*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Nonlinear Dynamics
  • Probability
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reward
  • Sensory Gating / physiology