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New discoveries about human risk aversion and decision-making

Research helps explain ways the brain maximizes reward and minimizes loss

What makes us decide to play it safe or take a risk? Scientists presented research today identifying regions and functions of the brain involved in such decisions to provide fresh insights into how humans explore the unknown. These findings also add to a relatively new area of inquiry — neuroeconomics and the study of economic behavior. The research was presented at Neuroscience 2011, the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Specifically, today's new findings show that:

The brain chemical serotonin may be involved in risky decision-making. Researchers found that when certain serotonin receptors are blocked, people are less likely to take a gambling risk (Julian Macoveanu, PhD, abstract 931.10, see summary attached).

Given multiple opportunities to choose, people seek out unfamiliar options over known outcomes (Robert Wilson, PhD, abstract 830.13, see summary attached).

Other recent findings discussed show that:

Brain cells in the orbitofrontal cortex of the monkey brain assign values to different goods. The activity of these cells adapts to the range of values presented and is independent of the value of alternative options (Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, PhD, see attached speaker's summary).

The brain circuit connecting the cortex and basal ganglia is involved in "deciding" which behavior to pursue. Studying this circuit yields new information about emotional decision-making and insights into certain neurological disorders, like obsessive-compulsive-spectrum disorders and addiction (Ann Graybiel, PhD, see attached speaker's summary).

"These studies help deepen our understanding of the highly complex mechanisms involved in decision-making," said press conference moderator Michael Platt, PhD, of Duke University, an expert in cognitive behavior and the brain. "Such research is not only helping us understand how and why we make the choices we do, but it also may lead to more effective interventions for some of the many brain disorders that are characterized by poor decision-making."

View full release and summaries at

This research was supported by national funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations.

Kat Snodgrass | EurekAlert!
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