09/10/2012 07:00:00

NIMH Awards $9 Million Grant to Caltech Researchers

PASADENA, Calif.—The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a five-year, $9 million grant to a research group at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to study the neurobiology of social decision making.

The grant establishes a Silvio O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research at Caltech, where researchers will use electrophysiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how humans make social decisions. The grant will support the operation of research equipment, the hiring of students and postdoctoral scholars, and the formation of a new collaborative research group.

Social decision making, in contrast to individual decision making, revolves around situations where subjects are exposed to concepts such as altruism, cooperation, punishment, and retribution. It involves learning how to make decisions by watching other people, making decisions that benefit other people, and cooperating with others to achieve a common goal. Caltech researchers will investigate how social decision making occurs at the most fundamental level in the human brain.

Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, will direct the center. Principal investigators will be Richard Andersen, the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience; John O'Doherty, professor of psychology; and Antonio Rangel, professor of economics and neuroscience.

"This award acknowledges that basic research is of critical importance to understanding psychiatric illnesses," says Adolphs. "A large number of decisions in everyday life occur in a social context, and this breaks down in diseases ranging from autism to schizophrenia to mood disorders."

Researchers in the new center will rely on two core Caltech resources for their investigations: the Psychological Assessment Lab, led by senior research scientist Lynn Paul, for recruiting and assessing human subjects, and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, headed by Mike Tyszka, who is a member of the professional staff.

According to Adolphs, the team has already begun planning studies to investigate the neural circuits underlying simple choices, how we learn to make good choices from other people, and how we make decisions that benefit others. 

The principal investigators are collaborating closely with several other faculty at Caltech, including Doris Tsao (assistant professor of biology), Colin Camerer (Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics), Peter Bossaerts (William D. Hacker Professor of Economics and Management and professor of finance), and Shinsuke Shimojo (Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology). The Caltech group also will collaborate with investigators nationally and internationally.

Named in memory of Massachusetts Rep. Silvio O. Conte, the NIMH's Conte Centers bring together diverse expertise and cutting-edge technology to gain new knowledge about mental-health disorders with the goal of improving diagnosis and treatment.

More information is available at the Conte Center's website: conte.caltech.edu.

Written by Brian Bell