Researchers have come closer to understanding the neural processes underlying risk-taking behaviour. The discovery provides greater insight into which areas of the brain are important for converting an appetite for risk into actual risk-taking behaviour.
Everyone has different risk preferences and attitudes. Some prefer a safe and quiet life; others have a great appetite for risk and throw themselves into one risky project after another.
A willingness to take great risks leads some people to create big companies or take off on great adventures, but others can end in substance or gambling addiction.
Impulsive risk-taking behaviour originates in the brain, and researchers have now identified what happens in the brain when impulsivity is converted into actual motor action.
Although the research results are related to basic science, they still have long-term potential to help people whose risk-taking behaviour negatively affects their daily lives.
“Some people have major problems with gambling, and we found that stimulating a specific area of the brain changes people’s risk-taking behaviour. Other researchers may want to take this knowledge further and test it in a clinical setting,” explains a researcher involved in the study, David Meder, Research Fellow, Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance, Amager and Hvidovre Hospital, Copenhagen.
The research has been published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Taking risks is an important part of normal behaviour
David Meder and colleagues were interested in understanding how risk-taking behaviour is expressed in the brain.
The researchers therefore used a dice game in which participants could win more and more money the more times they rolled a die. However, they could also lose it all again if they rolled a one, and the stakes gradually increased until only the most impulsive risk takers continued to roll the die, while everyone else had long since pocketed their winnings.
David Meder explains that this behaviour is not new and that our brains are trained to manage risk.
Thousands of years ago, when people’s lives depended on gathering food on the savannah, they constantly had to balance the possible benefit of going hunting against the risk of being eaten by a predator. Broadly speaking, the longer people were away from the protection of their social group, the greater the risk they had of being eaten.
“We know quite a bit about which areas of the brain affect risk-taking behaviour. We have scanned people’s brains while they played the dice game and found that the areas of the brain involved in this behaviour appetite become increasingly active the longer people remain in the game, and their possible gain but also possible loss increases,” says David Meder.
Areas of the brain suppress motor impulses
The areas of the brain identified by the researchers comprise the inhibitory control network, which suppresses motor impulses.
For example, researchers can investigate the inhibitory control network by asking people to press a button every time they see an image on a screen, unless they see, for example, an image of a cat.
When people press the button repeatedly, they are also very likely to press it when they see an image of a cat, but the areas of the brain that are part of the inhibitory control network are activated to ensure that this does not happen. It therefore makes good sense that the inhibitory control network is also involved in risk-taking behaviour, helping to inhibit hasty decisions.
Part of the inhibitory control network is the brain’s pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), which is located between the area of the brain that controls movement and the areas of the brain that carry out strategic planning.
“It is reasonable to believe that the pre-SMA links risk-taking behaviour and motor impulses, and we wanted to investigate this in our study,” says David Meder.
Stimulated the brains of 22 people
The researchers scanned the brains of 22 people while playing the dice game.
Before these people entered the scanner, the researchers magnetically stimulated the pre-SMA to lower the activity in this area of the brain and change the risk appetite of the participants.
“We knew from a previous study that the activity in the pre-SMA increases as the decisions made involve more risk, and we thus hypothesised that this area of the brain might work as a sort of stop button in risk-taking behaviour. If this is true, we should be able to change the appetite for risk by inhibiting this area in the brain and thus removing the brakes,” explains David Meder.
Results vary based on personality
However, the initial results did not match the expectations, since people did not behave differently on average after magnetic stimulation of the pre-SMA.
However, the researchers found that stimulating the pre-SMA had a surprising effect depending on a person’s initial appetite for taking risks.
People with higher self-reported impulsivity had become less willing to take risks, and self-reported risk-averse people had become more impulsive relative to a test session without magnetic stimulation.
The brain scans also showed that the activity of the pre-SMA during the dice game increased among risk-averse individuals and declined among people with an appetite for high risk-taking.
“The pre-SMA apparently affects risky behaviour in different ways depending on our risk-taking type. One way to interpret these results is that if you have a tendency for very high-risk behaviour, this area of the brain tells you to take it easy, so you do not gamble everything away, but if you are risk averse, this area of the brain tells you to keep going a little longer,” says David Meder.
David Meder explains that the study primarily provides insight into how the brain works when people take risks.
However, he thinks that improved understanding of the brain may lead to some options in treating gambling addiction and substance abuse.
He envisions scenarios in which the link between brain stimulation and therapy can change inappropriate behaviour.
“However, remember that we do not know which other areas of the brain the pre-SMA affects, and we need to understand this before we start tinkering with it. The same applies to many other parameters such as the effect of repeated stimulation, how long it lasts or whether the effects also apply to decisions in everyday life,” concludes David Meder.