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"We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control," says Sarah Helfinstein. (Credit: baerchen57/Flickr)

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Why we can’t resist taking risks

When people engage is risky behavior, such as drunk driving or unsafe sex, it’s probably not because their brains’ desire systems are too active, but because their self-control systems are not active enough.

For a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed data from 108 subjects who sat in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, a machine that allows researchers to pinpoint brain activity in vivid 3D images, while playing a video game that simulates risk-taking.

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The researchers used specialized software to look for patterns of activity across the whole brain that preceded a person’s making a risky choice or a safe choice in one set of subjects. Then they asked the software to predict what else subjects would choose during the game based solely on their brain activity. The software accurately predicted people’s choices 71 percent of the time.

“These patterns are reliable enough that not only can we predict what will happen in an additional test on the same person, but on people we haven’t seen before,” says Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Imaging Research Center.

When the researchers trained their software on much smaller regions of the brain, they found that just analyzing the regions typically involved in executive functions such as control, working memory, and attention was enough to predict a person’s future choices. Therefore, the researchers conclude, when we make risky choices, it is primarily because of the failure of our control systems to stop us.

A function of control

“We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control,” says Sarah Helfinstein, a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s lead author.

Additional research could focus on how external factors, such as peer pressure, lack of sleep, or hunger, weaken the activity of our brains’ control systems when we contemplate risky decisions.

“If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks,” Helfinstein says.

To simulate features of real-world risk-taking, the researchers used a video game called the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) that past research has shown correlates well with self-reported risk-taking such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, gambling, driving without a seatbelt, stealing, and engaging in unprotected sex.

Take a risk or play it safe?

While playing the BART, the subject sees a balloon on the screen and is asked to make either a risky choice (inflate the balloon a little and earn a few cents) or a safe choice (stop the round and “cash out,” keeping whatever money was earned up to that point). Sometimes inflating the balloon causes it to burst and the player loses all the cash earned from that round.

After each successful balloon inflation, the game continues with the chance of earning another standard-sized reward or losing an increasingly large amount. Many health-relevant risky decisions share this same structure, such as when deciding how many alcoholic beverages to drink before driving home or how much one can experiment with drugs or cigarettes before developing an addiction.

Researchers from Yale University contributed to the study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Consortium for Neuropsychiatric Phenomics and the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

 

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