Mauricio Delgado

Throughout the course of the day, we are constantly involved in making decisions, from the simple to the complex. Should I have pizza or salad for lunch? Should I buy the BMW or the Toyota? Should I save for a vacation or spend the weekend in Atlantic City?

With many of the decisions we make, there is a long-term effect. Eat pizza every day and you might end up with some weight and, perhaps, health issues. Buy the BMW and it’s beyond your budget and you might end up in financial trouble. Keep visiting Atlantic City’s casinos and you might develop a gambling problem.

So how can we make better decisions? In the Delgado Lab for Social and Affective Neuroscience at Rutgers University in Newark, Professor Mauricio Delgado is uncovering how the interaction of emotion and cognition in the human brain affects learning and decision-making.

Delgado explains that when making day-to-day decisions, such as what to eat for lunch, we typically have different subjective values in mind that we use to make a choice. For example, we may enjoy the taste of pizza better than a salad so we assign a greater value to the pizza. On the other hand, we might believe that maintaining our weight is more important and assign a greater value to the salad. The question is which value becomes the deciding factor? Also if we put too much importance on the value of a particular item and it leads to overconsumption, such as eating too much pizza, can we take control of the value we assign?

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Delgado and his team are uncovering how the human brain learns about value (rewards and punishments), how it uses that information to make decisions and how we can control or regulate emotions elicited by the expectations of rewards and punishments to make better decisions.

A recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists, Delgado explains, “It all starts with how the brain processes what is good and bad.”

Among his key discoveries, Delgado has found that the striatum, a major input station of the brain’s basal ganglia system, is involved in processing reward-related information. When research participants received a monetary gain (reward), activity in this area of the brain increased. When they received a monetary loss (punishment), activity in this brain area decreased. It is this area of the brain, he explains, that is involved in more impulsive decision-making as the desire to experience reward outweighs more cognitive reflection.

Delgado’s research, however, also has shown that activity in that area of the brain can be controlled by emotion regulation strategies. Those strategies vary widely from individual to individual and can range from deep breathing, to thinking calming thoughts, to meditation.

“People sometimes may overweigh the value of a reward or punishment, which can get in the way of good decision-making,” says Delgado.  “They can be trained, however, to try and reduce the emotional responses linked with the increased perception of value. When a person uses a calming or relaxing strategy, for example, we can show in an fMRI scanner that brain activity in the striatum, an area involved in reward processes and risky decisions, is decreased.”

Such findings are important for understanding how to ameliorate a number of risky, destructive behaviors from drug addiction, to gambling, to impulse control disorders.

“It’s possible to take control over our sometimes exaggerated emotional responses to positive and negative outcomes,” says Delgado. “It involves mind over matter – that is, the successful use of regulation strategies that promote changes in brain mechanisms involved in processing information about reward and punishment values.”

 

Biography

A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mauricio Delgado earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He initially planned to build a career in medicine, but after joining a psychology laboratory in his early years he developed a keen interest in research and teaching and pursued a career in academia as a neuroscientist. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University. In 2006, he joined the faculty at Rutgers-Newark where he established the Delgado Lab for Social and Affective Neuroscience.

In 2010, President Barack Obama presented Delgado with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers.  

Delgado’s research group is funded in part by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health. His research has been widely published in such journals as Science, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychological Science and the Journal of Neuroscience. Given the intriguing nature of his research and its impact on daily life, his work also has been broadly reported by the media including New Scientist, The Economist, Scientific American, MSN Money and the BBC.

 

Selected Publications  (Delgado and co-authors)

 

Selected Media Coverage