Brain structure predicts risky behavior

Credit: Patrick J. Lynch

Some people avoid risks at all costs, while others put their wealth,
health, and safety at risk without a thought. Researchers at Yale 
School of Medicine find that the volume of the parietal cortex 
in the brain could predict where people fall on the risk-taking spectrum.

The debate about whether human behavior is learned or results from genetic programming impacts the way a writer structures character in their stories.  It's accepted at least in the film industry that characters that learn and grow from their experiences in a story are the most appealing to audiences, and that those films do better in the box office.  Examples range from Jerry Maguire to Casablanca to A Christmas Carol, films in which the main character becomes a better person over the arc of the story.

But, if some human behavior is genetic in origin, can people with certain behaviors actually change?  That is at the core of the Nature vs. Nuture debate.  Based on this research which shows a basic brain structure difference between people who are risk takers and those who are not, you can make the argument that once a risk taker, always a risk taker.  

What's interesting about this and other research, researchers point out that they're not sure whether the brain structure causes the behavior, or if the behavior causes the brain structure.  Sounds to me as if we have the power to change the structure of our brain, while the structure of our brain does predispose behavior.

This makes my brain hurt.

Here's the story: 

"We could use millions of existing medical brain 
scans to assess risk attitudes in populations."

Some people avoid risks at all costs, while others will put their wealth, health, and safety at risk without a thought. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have found that the volume of the parietal cortex in the brain could predict where people fall on the risk-taking spectrum.

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Led by Ifat Levy, assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, the team found that those with larger volume in a particular part of the parietal cortex were willing to take more risks than those with less volume in this part of the brain. The findings were published in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Although several cognitive and personality traits are reflected in brain structure, there has been little research linking brain structure to economic preferences. Levy and her colleagues sought to examine this question in their study.

Study participants included young adult men and women from the northeastern United States. Participants made a series of choices between monetary lotteries that varied in their degree of risk, and the research team conducted standard anatomical MRI brain scans. The results were first obtained in a group of 28 participants, and then confirmed in a second, independent, group of 33 participants.

"Based on our findings, we could, in principle, use millions of existing medical brains scans to assess risk attitudes in populations," said Levy. "It could also help us explain differences in risk attitudes based in part on structural brain differences."

Levy cautions that the results do not speak to causality. "We don't know if structural changes lead to behavioral changes or vice-versa," she said.

"Risk aversion increases as people age, 
and we know that the cortex thins with age."

Levy and her team had previously shown that risk aversion increases as people age, and we scientists also know that the cortex thins substantially with age. "It could be that this thinning explains the behavioral changes; we are now testing that possibility," said Levy, who also notes that more studies in wider populations are needed.

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Yale University, original article was written by Karen N. Peart.  "Brain structure could predict risky behavior." ScienceDaily, 9 September 2014. 

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