The timing of exploratory decision-making revealed by single-trial topographic EEG analyses
Decision-making in an uncertain environment is driven by two major needs: exploring the environment to gather information or exploiting acquired knowledge to maximize reward. The neural processes underlying exploratory decision-making have been mainly studied by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging, overlooking any information about the time when decisions are made. Here, we carried out an electroencephalography (EEG) experiment, in order to detect the time when the brain generators responsible for these decisions have been sufficiently activated to lead to the next decision. Our analyses, based on a classification scheme, extract time-unlocked voltage topographies during reward presentation and use them to predict the type of decisions made on the subsequent trial. Classification accuracy, measured as the area under the Receiver Operator's Characteristic curve was on average 0.65 across 7 subjects. Classification accuracy was above chance levels already after 516 ms on average, across subjects. We speculate that decisions were already made before this critical period, as confirmed by a positive correlation with reaction times across subjects. On an individual subject basis, distributed source estimations were performed on the extracted topographies to statistically evaluate the neural correlates of decision-making. For trials leading to exploration, there was significantly higher activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the right supramarginal gyrus; areas responsible for modulating behavior under risk and deduction. No area was more active during exploitation. We show for the first time the temporal evolution of differential patterns of brain activation in an exploratory decision-making task on a single-trial basis.