Some people avoid risks at all costs, while others will put their wealth, health, and safety at risk without a thought. A team of scientists, including researchers at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, has found that the volume of a part of the brain in the parietal cortex could predict where people fall on the risk-taking spectrum.
In their study, NYU’s Paul Glimcher, Yale’s Ifat Levy, and their colleagues found that those with larger volume in a particular part of the parietal cortex were willing to take more risks than those with less volume in this part of the brain. The findings are published in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
“This is the first demonstration of a biomarker of human risk attitude, which opens the doors for using brain scans to predict people’s responses to risk,” explains Glimcher, a professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science.
Although several cognitive and personality traits are reflected in brain structure, there has been little research linking brain structure to economic preferences. Levy, Glimcher, and their colleagues sought to examine this question in their study.
Study participants included young adult men and women from the northeastern United States. Participants made a series of choices between monetary lotteries that varied in their degree of risk, and the research team conducted standard anatomical MRI brain scans. The results were first obtained in a group of 28 participants, and then confirmed in a second, independent, group of 33 participants.
“Based on our findings, we could, in principle, use millions of existing medical brains scans to assess risk attitudes in populations,” said Levy, a former NYU postdoctoral fellow. “It could also help us explain differences in risk attitudes based in part on structural brain differences.”
Levy, assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, cautions that the results do not speak to causality.
“We don’t know if structural changes lead to behavioral changes or vice-versa,” she says.
Levy and her team had previously shown that risk aversion increases as people age, and we scientists also know that the cortex thins substantially with age.
“It could be that this thinning explains the behavioral changes; we are now testing that possibility,” says Levy, who also notes that more studies in wider populations are needed.
Glimcher adds that there may someday be non-scientific applications for the findings. These could include assessing risk attitudes when it comes to investment decisions, potentially offering more accurate measures of risk tolerance than yielded by today’s questionnaires.
The study was a collaboration of researchers from Yale, University College London, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Sydney, Australia. Its other authors include Sharon Gilaie-Dotan, Agnieszka Tymula, Nicole Cooper, and Joseph Kable.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Aging (R01AG033406).
Citation: The Journal of Neuroscience doi DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1600-14.2014 (Sept. 10, 2014)