Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Neuroanatomy predicts individual risk attitudes.

Gilaie-Dotan et al. show that the volume of a region in the right posterior parietal cortex is relatively larger in individuals with higher risk tolerance (i.e. those more likely to choose a risky option). This region had previously been linked to uncertainty of reward, decision making, and the subjective value of uncertain rewards in both monkey and human brains.
Over the course of the last decade a multitude of studies have investigated the relationship between neural activations and individual human decision-making. Here we asked whether the anatomical features of individual human brains could be used to predict the fundamental preferences of human choosers. To that end, we quantified the risk attitudes of human decision-makers using standard economic tools and quantified the gray matter cortical volume in all brain areas using standard neurobiological tools. Our whole-brain analysis revealed that the gray matter volume of a region in the right posterior parietal cortex was significantly predictive of individual risk attitudes. Participants with higher gray matter volume in this region exhibited less risk aversion. To test the robustness of this finding we examined a second group of participants and used econometric tools to test the ex ante hypothesis that gray matter volume in this area predicts individual risk attitudes. Our finding was confirmed in this second group. Our results, while being silent about causal relationships, identify what might be considered the first stable biomarker for financial risk-attitude. If these results, gathered in a population of midlife northeast American adults, hold in the general population, they will provide constraints on the possible neural mechanisms underlying risk attitudes. The results will also provide a simple measurement of risk attitudes that could be easily extracted from abundance of existing medical brain scans, and could potentially provide a characteristic distribution of these attitudes for policy makers.

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