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How The Brain Evaluates Risk

People are faced with thousands of choices every day, some inane and some risky. Scientists know that the areas of the brain that evaluate risk are the same for each person, but what makes the value assigned to risk different for individuals? To answer this question, a new video article in () uses (fMRI) to characterize subjective while subjects choose between different lotteries to play. The article, a joint effort from laboratories at , is led by Yale’s Dr. Ifat Levy. Dr. Levy explains, “This procedure allows us to examine all kinds of normal and pathological behaviors focusing on risk assessment. It could explain things like substance abuse and over-eating from a different perspective than how it is usually characterized.”

The research, funded by the National Institute on Aging, evaluates risk by having individuals choose one of two different lotteries to play. “Economists distinguish between risk, when probabilities are known, and , when probabilities are unknown. In real life, most of the situations are a mix between risk and . We know that people act differently if results are known than if they are unknown. This is why it is important to look at the decision-making process,” Dr. Levy explains. Risk assessment plays into a wide variety of normal decisions and personal encounters. The brain has a consistent pathway to decide everything from “what to have for breakfast” or “where to get gas” to more important decisions, like “should I pay for this medicine,” or “should I make this investment.” This procedure is important because it allows scientists to characterize behavior and could be used to understand normal and pathological behaviors, and to prescribe behavioral or pharmacological treatment to at-risk patients.

In each round of the experiment, one lottery stays constant while the other changes three variables: probability of winning the lottery, payout amount for winning the lottery, and ambiguity of winning the lottery. As the subject’s choice is recorded, fMRI is used to evaluate stimulation and activity in the risk centers of the brain for each choice. Using statistical analysis, the unique choice behavior of each subject can be identified and expressed.

Dr. Levy chose to publish this procedure in JoVE‘s video format because he says, “This is an article that we have used on a wide variety of subjects in varying populations and conditions. Some of the steps in this article are really important, and JoVE ensures that scientists can replicate our results with their own subjects.” The article was published in the Neuroscience section of JoVE. The publication comes only a few weeks before the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in New Orleans, where JoVE editors will meet an international assembly of neuroscientists conducting cutting edge research in an attempt to understand the brain.


Levy et. al.: http://www.jove.com/video/3724/measuring-subjective-value-risky-ambiguous-options-using-experimental
Link to this release:
The Journal of Visualized Experiments