Brain activity patterns predict risky and safe choices in healthy human volunteers

The question of which neural events predict risky vs. safe behaviors such as overtaking a slower vehicle when there is little space to do so due to oncoming traffic vs. driving behind the slower vehicle and arriving a few minutes later to work is a highly interesting and important one. The vast majority of neuroimaging studies investigating the neural basis of risk taking have utilized models adapted from economics, in which risks are defined as the degree of variance in outcomes, however, it has been argued that for lay persons risk equals being exposed to a potential loss.

In their recent study, Dr. Helfinstein et al. (2014) had 108 healthy volunteers engage in a task called Balloon analog risk task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. In this task, the subjects earn points when they pump up balloons, but lose the points if the balloon explodes before they “cash out” by stopping pumping. This task was selected because it is highly correlated with public health relevant risk taking behaviors, including unsafe driving, sexual risk taking, and drug use. The authors observed that multi-voxel pattern analysis of brain activity before the point of decision making predicted subsequent risky vs. safe choices by the subjects, specifically involving brain regions found in previous studies to participate in control functions. Interestingly, in a separate univariate analysis these areas were found more active before safe than risky choices.

These highly interesting findings show that it is possible to predict risky vs. safe choices based on preceding patterns of brain activity in a set of regions that have been previously shown to be activated during tasks requiring cognitive control. The fact that these areas were more strongly activated preceding safe than risky decisions suggests that increased risk taking might be due to failures in engaging appropriate cognitive control processes. The relevance of these findings is further augmented given that the Balloon analog risk task that was used has been found in previous studies to correlate highly with real-life risk taking behaviors relevant for public health such as unsafe driving and drug use.

Reference: Helfinstein SM,  Schonberg T, Congdon E, Karlsgodt KH, Mumford JA, Sabb FW, Cannon TD, London ED, Bilder BM, Poldrack RA. Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2014) e-publication ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1321728111