John P. O'Doherty

Professor of Psychology; Director, Caltech Brain Imaging Center
B.A., University of Dublin (Trinity College), 1996; D.Phil., University of Oxford, 2000. Assistant Professor, Caltech, 2004-07; Associate Professor, 2007-09; Professor, 2009-; Director, Caltech Brain Imaging Center, 2013-.


Behavioral and Social Neuroscience


Neural Basis of Reward and Reward-Related Learning; Neuroimaging; Conditioning and Associative Learning; Taste and Olfaction; Affective Neuroscience


John O'Doherty studies the neural basis of reward-related learning and decision making, complex computational problems that have come to be solved by the brain over the course of evolution. He's interested in how the human brain can learn from experience in order to make decisions that maximize future rewards and minimize future costs.

The cornerstone of his research is the use of computational algorithms, which include reinforcement learning, models that are derived in part from computer science and robotics. By combining these models with data taken using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measures changes in blood oxygenation—a proxy for neural activity—he and his colleagues can probe how the brain learns and makes decisions. This approach allows the researchers to characterize how a particular cognitive function is implemented, instead of merely identifying the location in the brain of such functions, which is typical of more traditional fMRI studies.

In addition, O'Doherty studies the effects of discrete lesions in specific brain regions on decision making. He also uses transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to induce temporary lesions in healthy subjects. These methods allow the researchers to pinpoint the causal roles that specific brain regions may play when making decisions, thereby complementing the fMRI studies.

A deeper understanding of the brain will not only inspire new theories of decision making but also contribute to the development of artificial intelligence. It will enable scientists to learn why some humans are better at making decisions, why those with certain psychiatric disorders or brain lesions are less capable of doing so, and why some people systematically fail to make rational decisions under certain circumstances.

O'Doherty is also a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam from 2012 to 2015. He was previously the Thomas N. Mitchell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Trinity College, from 2008 to 2010, and an adjunct professor of psychology there until 2013. He was a Kinross Research Fellow at University College London from 2000 to 2004. Since 2010, he has been a faculty member of the Parmenides Foundation in Germany. He was elected a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (2009) and Trinity College Dublin (2009). He received a Searle Scholarship in 2006.

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