Monday, December 03, 2012

Brain regions that predict and regulate risk-taking.

Two recent pieces of work raise the prospect of being able to predict and even regulate a person's risk-taking behavior, by first observing activity of the anterior cingulate cortex and then dialing it up or down.

First, Rudorf et al. show that behavioral risk preferences are reflected in the passive evaluation of risky situations:
"Individual risk preferences have a large influence on decisions, such as financial investments, career and health choices, or gambling. Decision making under risk has been studied both behaviorally and on a neural level. It remains unclear, however, how risk attitudes are encoded and integrated with choice. Here, we investigate how risk preferences are reflected in neural regions known to process risk. We collected functional magnetic resonance images of 56 human subjects during a gambling task (Preuschoff et al., 2006). Subjects were grouped into risk averters and risk seekers according to the risk preferences they revealed in a separate lottery task. We found that during the anticipation of high-risk gambles, risk averters show stronger responses in ventral striatum and anterior insula compared to risk seekers. In addition, risk prediction error signals in anterior insula, inferior frontal gyrus, and anterior cingulate indicate that risk averters do not dissociate properly between gambles that are more or less risky than expected. We suggest this may result in a general overestimation of prospective risk and lead to risk avoidance behavior. This is the first study to show that behavioral risk preferences are reflected in the passive evaluation of risky situations. The results have implications on public policies in the financial and health domain."
Figure: Anticipation risk coding. Neural activation in bilateral ventral striatum (vStr; top) and anterior insula (aIns; bottom) during anticipation of the second card that correlates with anticipation risk, i.e., expected outcome variance.
Second, Ishii et al. show (in mice) that inactivating anterior insular cortex suppresses risk-taking behavior:
"We often have to make risky decisions between alternatives with outcomes that can be better or worse than the outcomes of safer alternatives. Although previous studies have implicated various brain regions in risky decision making, it remains unknown which regions are crucial for balancing whether to take a risk or play it safe. Here, we focused on the anterior insular cortex (AIC), the causal involvement of which in risky decision making is still unclear, although human imaging studies have reported AIC activation in various gambling tasks. We investigated the effects of temporarily inactivating the AIC on rats' risk preference in two types of gambling tasks, one in which risk arose in reward amount and one in which it arose in reward delay. As a control within the same subjects, we inactivated the adjacent orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is well known to affect risk preference. In both gambling tasks, AIC inactivation decreased risk preference whereas OFC inactivation increased it. In risk-free control situations, AIC and OFC inactivations did not affect decision making. These results suggest that the AIC is causally involved in risky decision making and promotes risk taking. The AIC and OFC may be crucial for the opposing motives of whether to take a risk or avoid it."


  1. Anonymous11:58 PM

    Working in financial services, we know that identifying the source of self-harming financial behavior is critical -- especially for retirees or regarding people's life savings.

    We have studied the brain work for years.

    We are currently highly skeptical of "higher order concepts" and natural language models -- even emotions as casual of behavior -- especially in econ.

    For example, the term "risk" is misused in the above work.

    We are spending more time on the visual system and the most basis systems - first. Well before we can start to talk about economic behavior. Furthermore, extensive animal ethology models needs precede human claims.

  2. With that bit of research, maybe we could further understand how top poker players and cunning businessmen calculate the risks they take. That could help others more easily replicate their success, although that could have an adverse effect in itself.