Sympathetic and parasympathetic involvement in time constrained sequential foraging
Dundon NM., Garrett N., Babenko V., Cieslak M., Daw ND., Grafton ST.
<jats:title>Abstract</jats:title><jats:p>Appraising sequential offers relative to an unknown future opportunity and a time cost requires an optimization policy that draws on a learned estimate of an environment’s richness. Converging evidence points to a learning asymmetry, whereby estimates of this richness update with a bias toward integrating positive information. We replicate this bias in a sequential foraging (prey selection) task and probe associated activation within two branches of the autonomic system, sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, using trial-by-trial measures of simultaneously recorded cardiac autonomic physiology. In general, lower value offers were accepted during periods of autonomic drive, both in the sympathetic (shorter pre-ejection period PEP) and parasympathetic (higher HF HRV) branches. In addition, we reveal a unique adaptive role for the sympathetic branch in learning. It was specifically associated with adaptation to a deteriorating environment: it correlated with both the rate of negative information integration in belief estimates and downward changes in moment-to-moment environmental richness, and was predictive of optimal performance on the task. The findings are consistent with a parallel processing framework whereby autonomic function serves both learning and executive demands of prey selection.</jats:p><jats:sec><jats:title>Significance statement</jats:title><jats:p>The value of choices (accepting a job) depends on context (richness of the current job market). Learning contexts, therefore, is crucial for optimal decision-making. Humans demonstrate a bias when learning contexts; we learn faster about improvements vs deteriorations. New techniques allow us to cleanly measure fast acting stress responses that might fluctuate with trial-by-trial learning. Using these new methods, we observe here that increased stress – specifically sympathetic (heart contractility) – might help overcome the learning bias (making us faster at learning contextual deterioration) and thereafter guide us toward better context appropriate decisions. For the first time we show that specific building blocks of good decision-making might benefit from short bursts of specific inputs of the stress system.</jats:p></jats:sec>