Carnegie Mellon University
October 04, 2012

News Brief: Look Here!

Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition Researchers Find That Parietal Neurons Code for Emotional Salience

Contact: Jocelyn Duffy / 412-268-9982 /

PITTSBURGH—As you walk down a busy city street, there might be a number of objects lying on the ground that you don’t even notice. But if one of them were a $20 bill you most likely would see it and pick it up, and if another were a snake you most likely would see it and swerve. These things happen because of neurons in your parietal cortex.

In a study published in the Oct. 5 issue of Science, researchers from the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint program between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, demonstrated that neurons in the lateral intraparietal area (LIP) respond strongly to very good objects (like the $20 bill) and very bad objects (like the snake). They call out to the rest of the brain: “pay attention to this.” They leave it to other brain areas to decide whether “this” is good or bad.

Carnegie Mellon Professor Carl Olson and University of Pittsburgh neuroscience graduate student Marvin Leathers allowed animal subjects to choose between pictures on a screen. Different pictures were associated with a big reward, small reward, big penalty and small penalty. The subjects based their choices on value. They would choose a big reward over a small reward and a small penalty over a big penalty. But the neurons in the LIP were influenced by emotional potency, firing most in response to pictures associated with a large reward or a large penalty.

“People make value-based decisions every minute of the day. Will I have orange juice or coffee? Will I go to medical school or graduate school?” Olson said. “Value-based decisions are at the heart of everything we do. We knew that LIP neurons were involved in this process but we didn’t know whether it was at the first stage, when things grab attention, or at the second stage, when we evaluate them and decide what to do. Now we know that parietal cortex makes its contribution by allowing emotionally potent things, whether good or bad, to capture our attention.”

This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.