The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

Dr. Adam Kepecs, Assistant Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, studies the neural basis of decision-making. After receiving his B.Sc. degree in computer science and mathematics at Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary, he switched to studying the brain, completing his Ph.D. at Brandeis University in theoretical neuroscience. During his postdoctoral training at CSHL he began studying cognition in rats, discovering neural correlates of decision confidence. In 2009, Dr. Kepecs received the Klingenstein Fellowship in the Neurosciences and was named a Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This year, he was selected as a John Merck Scholar. Since 2007, he has headed a research laboratory at CSHL where he employs sophisticated behavioral paradigms and electrophysiological, optical and molecular techniques to study the neural circuitry underlying decision-making in rodents.

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Question: Why is Phineas Gage so important to psychology?

Adam Kepecs:  So there is this very interesting story about Phineas Gage.  He lived in the 1800’s and the horrible accident happened to him during construction.  A very large iron rod just went through and pierced his skull and he miraculously survived and what was amazing about it, not just his survival, but that he was still human.  He could reason.  His intellect didn’t seem to change, but something changed.  His personality was different and his decision making skills and that was one of the first pieces of evidence that scientists had about the localization of these different functions and today with much more evidence and much more specific lesion studies we actually have a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that a part of the frontal lobe that was damaged in Phineas Gage, the orbital frontal cortex is key to decision making.