Science

Scientists identify the region of the brain associated with risk-taking

A region of the brain linked with risk-taking has been identified by scientists, who say it could explain why some people are more likely to smoke and drink.

A team of neurologists from the University of Zurich found major functional and anatomical distinctions among those who are likely to smoke, use alcohol or drugs, speed, or have many sexual partners when compared to more cautious people.

For the study the Swiss team examined 25,000 people and found a direct relationship between differences in brain anatomy and propensity to take risks.

Distinct characteristics were found in regions of the brain responsible for controlling happy hormones like dopamine, memory storage and in managing self-control. 

They say understanding what prompts people to engage in risky behaviours is important due to the health and economic consequences linked to these activities. 

A team of neurologists from the University of Zurich found major functional and anatomical distinctions among those who are likely to smoke, use alcohol or drugs, speed, or have many sexual partners when compared to more cautious people

Around 50 per cent of British people describe themselves as risk-takers and try to take small risks to increase their adrenaline levels, surveys have shown. 

But experts have said risks can lead to enormous health and economic consequences, with costs of an estimated 600 billion dollars a year in the US alone.

As part of this new study, the Swiss-led team found distinct characteristics linked to risk taking in the ‘happy hormone’ controlling hypothalamus, the memory storing hippocampus and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex responsible for self-control. 

They found there was no single ‘risk region’ of the brain – rather a number of regions are involved when someone is more predisposed to take risky actions. 

Other characteristics were found in the amygdala, which controls the emotional reaction to danger, and the ventral striatum – activated when processing rewards. 

Surprisingly the scientists were finding measurable differences in the cerebellum, which plays an important role in decision-making processes.

In each of those areas showing changes among risk-taking individuals compared to the risk-adverse, the team found less grey matter.

Dr Goekhan Aydogan, at the University of Zurich, said: ‘We found both functional and anatomical differences.

‘It appears that the cerebellum does after all play an important role in decision-making processes such as risk-taking behaviour.

‘In the brains of more risk-tolerant individuals, we found less grey matter in these areas. How this grey matter affects behaviour, however, still needs to be studied further.’ 

Distinct characteristics were found in regions of the brain responsible for controlling happy hormones like dopamine, memory storage and in managing self-control

Distinct characteristics were found in regions of the brain responsible for controlling happy hormones like dopamine, memory storage and in managing self-control

Many research teams have investigated the link between a tendency to take risk and how it correlates to different brain regions – but previous studies have only featured hundreds of participants – constraining the power to make firm conclusions. 

This new study, including work from the University of Pennsylvania, benefits from a robust dataset, the UK Biobank, which has biomedical data from 500,000 volunteer participants between the ages of 40 and 69. 

To get an overview of risky behaviour they looked at four self-reported behaviours: smoking, drinking, sexual promiscuity, and driving above the speed limit. 

To drill down on the connections between genes, brain, and risk tolerance, the researchers used data of 12,675 people of European ancestry from the UK Biobank and followed it up with another 12,000 to verify the results. 

Many research teams have investigated the link between a tendency to take risk and how it correlates to different brain regions - but previous studies have only featured hundreds of participants - constraining the power to make firm conclusions.

Many research teams have investigated the link between a tendency to take risk and how it correlates to different brain regions – but previous studies have only featured hundreds of participants – constraining the power to make firm conclusions.

They found higher risk tolerance was linked to overall lower grey matter volume in the brain and particularly in certain areas of the brain. 

‘We find that we don’t have only one brain region that is the ‘risk area,” said study co-author Gideon Nave from the University of Pennsylvania.

Nave says. ‘There are a lot of regions involved, and the effect sizes we found are not that large but also not that small.’ 

The scientists warned that more research needs to be done in how a person’s environment affects their genetic disposition to risk-taking.

Dr Aydogan added: ‘How exactly the interplay of environment and genes determines risk-taking requires further research.’

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour


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