Competitive integration of time and reward explains value-sensitive foraging decisions and frontal cortex ramping dynamics

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The ability to make advantageous decisions is critical for animals to ensure their survival. Patch foraging is a natural decision-making process in which animals decide when to leave a patch of depleting resources to search for a new one. To study the algorithmic and neural basis of patch foraging behavior in a controlled laboratory setting, we developed a virtual foraging task for head-fixed mice. Mouse behavior could be explained by ramp-to-threshold models integrating time and rewards antagonistically. Accurate behavioral modeling required inclusion of a slowly varying “patience” variable, which modulated sensitivity to time. To investigate the neural basis of this decision-making process, we performed dense electrophysiological recordings with Neuropixels probes broadly throughout frontal cortex and underlying subcortical areas. We found that decision variables from the reward integrator model were represented in neural activity, most robustly in frontal cortical areas. Regression modeling followed by unsupervised clustering identified a subset of neurons with ramping activity. These neurons’ firing rates ramped up gradually in single trials over long time scales (up to tens of seconds), were inhibited by rewards, and were better described as being generated by a continuous ramp rather than a discrete stepping process. Together, these results identify reward integration via a continuous ramping process in frontal cortex as a likely candidate for the mechanism by which the mammalian brain solves patch foraging problems.

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