Monday, February 16, 2009

Brain correlates of dealing with risk versus ambiguity

Because it is relevant to last friday's post on the economic situation, I thought I would bring forward this bit of work which I had been planning to mention soon. It is yet another interesting study from the group at Wellcome Center group at University College associated with Ray Dolan - cognitive neuroscience that is directly relevant to our current economic and political reality:
In economic decision making, outcomes are described in terms of risk (uncertain outcomes with certain probabilities) and ambiguity (uncertain outcomes with uncertain probabilities). Humans are more averse to ambiguity than to risk, with a distinct neural system suggested as mediating this effect. However, there has been no clear disambiguation of activity related to decisions themselves from perceptual processing of ambiguity. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, we contrasted ambiguity, defined as a lack of information about outcome probabilities, to risk, where outcome probabilities are known, or ignorance, where outcomes are completely unknown and unknowable. We modified previously learned pavlovian CS+ stimuli such that they became an ambiguous cue and contrasted evoked brain activity both with an unmodified predictive CS+ (risky cue), and a cue that conveyed no information about outcome probabilities (ignorance cue). Compared with risk, ambiguous cues elicited activity in posterior inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal cortex during outcome anticipation. Furthermore, a similar set of regions was activated when ambiguous cues were compared with ignorance cues. Thus, regions previously shown to be engaged by decisions about ambiguous rewarding outcomes are also engaged by ambiguous outcome prediction in the context of aversive outcomes. Moreover, activation in these regions was seen even when no actual decision is made. Our findings suggest that these regions subserve a general function of contextual analysis when search for hidden information during outcome anticipation is both necessary and meaningful.
The authors also comment on previous work emphasizing the amygdala:
In contrast to the present experiment, a previous fMRI study has suggested that the amygdala and dorsomedial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex underlie decision making under ambiguity (Hsu et al., 2005). ... Although it is obvious that the amygdala responds to some kinds of uncertainty [e.g., temporal unpredictability], different forms of uncertainty have not been formally compared with regard to such responses. The kind of outcome uncertainty described in the aforementioned work is likely to be different from the economic definition applied in the present study (e.g., the lack of knowledge about CS–UCS contingencies in fear conditioning paradigms corresponds to the ignorance and not the ambiguity condition in the present study). The study by Hsu et al. (2005), although concerned with an economic definition of ambiguity, in fact collapsed different kinds of "ambiguous" situations for analysis of fMRI data, that is, monetary gambles following a strict economic definition, but also quizzes, and uninformed gambles against an informed opponent. Together, the data indicate that there is no entirely convincing empirical evidence that the amygdala responds to ambiguity as defined in a strict economic sense, an inference upheld by our present findings, although such a role of the amygdala cannot be discounted entirely (Seymour and Dolan, 2008).

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