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Peter Dayan wins world's biggest prize for neuroscience 

6 March 2017

Professor Peter Dayan, Director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, based here in the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, has been jointly awarded the 2017 Brain Prize. The award will be shared between him, Ray Dolan (both University College London) and Wolfram Schultz (University of Cambridge) for their analyses of how the brain recognises and processes reward. 

The capacity to link reward to events and actions is the foundation of human and animal survival, and problems with the processing of reward lie at the heart of many neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Dr Sarah Caddick, neuroscience advisor to Lord Sainsbury of Turville and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation said, “Everyone at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation is delighted for all of this year’s recipients, but especially so for Professor Dayan, who has not only delivered excellent research throughout his career, but has been responsible for steering the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit to its current world class status in the field.”

Peter Dayan

The Brain Prize, awarded annually by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is worth one million Euros. It recognises one or more scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.  

The research of this year’s winners has far-reaching implications for understanding human behaviour, including decision-making, gambling, drug addiction, compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia.

Reward is essential to survival because humans and other animals need to learn to direct their decisions and their actions towards outcomes that will satisfy their needs, and away from danger.  This means that they have to learn which events in the environment predict future rewards and punishments. For instance, if you feel hungry and see a building with a sign ‘restaurant’, you are likely to enter because the sign predicts that your hunger will be reduced if you go inside.

The sense of reward is surprisingly complicated. It is influenced and determined by many things, such as taste and smell, as well as by fundamental motivations such as hunger or thirst. In turn, it influences choices, decisions and even attention. Many regions of the brain process information associated with reward, but one central linchpin for the regulation of learning and performance is a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine.

British computational neuroscientist, Peter Dayan, is recognised internationally as a leader in the rapidly developing field of computational neuroscience. When working with colleagues at the Salk Institute in California, Dayan realised that the pattern of activity in the brain corresponds to a signal known - from the earliest days of artificial intelligence - as a ‘reward prediction error’. 

If predictions are wrong, for instance being too pessimistic, reward prediction errors can adjust them to be more optimistic. If the prediction error signals that something unexpectedly good follows a particular choice that we made, we become more likely to act or behave in the same way in the future. 

Together, prediction errors sculpt our expectations and experience of the world.

“For example, imagine that you choose between restaurants based on predicting how good they are. Then, if the one you chose is better than expected, the positive prediction error allows you to update your prediction. Next time you are faced with a restaurant choice, you are more likely to pick the one that was better,” said Dayan.

This link between dopamine and prediction error was one of the spurs for an explosion of work using theoretical ideas and computational models to link artificial intelligence, economics, mathematics, engineering and statistics to swathes of results in psychology and neuroscience. 

“Of course, dopamine does not work by itself. There is currently great interest in understanding the many cooperating and competing brain systems that contribute to both good and bad choices, and indeed manipulating them when things go wrong,” said Dayan.

2017 Brain Prize winners

Professor Sir Colin Blakemore (University of London), chairman of the Brain Prize selection committee said, “The judges concluded that the discoveries made by Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz were crucial for understanding how the brain detects reward and uses this information to guide behaviour. This work is a wonderful example of the creative power of interdisciplinary research”.

The winners will share the prize, which will be presented to them at a ceremony on 4 May in Copenhagen by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.