Interfacing to the brain’s motor decisions

Giovanni Mirabella, Mikhail A. Lebedev

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


It has been long known that neural activity, recorded with electrophysiological methods, contains rich information about a subject’s motor intentions, sensory experiences, allocation of attention, action planning, and even abstract thoughts. All these functions have been the subject of neurophysiological investigations, with the goal of understanding how neuronal activity represents behavioral parameters, sensory inputs, and cognitive functions. The field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) strives for a somewhat different goal: it endeavors to extract information from neural modulations to create a communication link between the brain and external devices. Although many remarkable successes have been already achieved in the BMI field, questions remain regarding the possibility of decoding high-order neural representations, such as decision making. Could BMIs be employed to decode the neural representations of decisions underlying goal-directed actions? In this review we lay out a framework that describes the computations underlying goal-directed actions as a multistep process performed by multiple cortical and subcortical areas. We then discuss how BMIs could connect to different decision-making steps and decode the neural processing ongoing before movements are initiated. Such decision-making BMIs could operate as a system with prediction that offers many advantages, such as shorter reaction time, better error processing, and improved unsupervised learning. To present the current state of the art, we review several recent BMIs incorporating decisionmaking components.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1305-1319
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 14 2017


  • Action value
  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Brain-computer interface
  • Brain-machine interface
  • Decision making
  • Reward
  • Voluntary motor control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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