Can Brain Imaging Detect Risk Takers?

Risk-taking seems to come naturally for some people – from those who don’t hesitate asking for a new promotion, to those who don’t flinch before artfully diving off a cliff into the ocean below. Others play it safer. While upbringing may have some role in our risk-taking probabilities, there are plenty of cases where siblings raised in the same environment have different tendencies to take risks.

Several studies have investigated the correlation between brain structure and risk-taking. In response to the statistic that unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among adolescents, the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas conducted a study that found brain differences in risk-taking teens, who are currently in some of their most important years for brain development.

Individual brains and risk-taking

The leading causes of death for adults are cancer and heart disease. For teens, it’s unintentional injuries. Although better overall health is one reason the stat seems to suggest that teens are likelier to take risks than their older peers, what the Center for Brain Health found was that some brain regions in risk-taking teens are more “amplified” compared to teens who “play it safe.”

“Our brains have an emotional-regulation network that exists to govern emotions and influence decision-making,” said Sam DeWitt, the study’s lead author. “Antisocial or risk-seeking behavior may be associated with an imbalance in this network.”

The study’s details

To discover the sectional amplification among risk-takers, the study looked at 36 adolescent participants aged 12-17. Half of them were risk-takers – fairly accustomed to sexual promiscuity, physical violence and/or drug and alcohol use – while the other half were not. They all underwent MRI scans to examine their emotional regulation network, which, as DeWitt says, is the primary controller in governing emotions and influencing decision-making.

The MRIs were conducted when most of the adolescents’ minds were in a “wandering” state, essentially focused on something fairly intently (such as reading or playing a video game) other than the study itself. As Dr. Sina Aslan explains: “Most fMRI scans used to be done in conjunction with a particular visual task. In the past several years, however, it has been shown that performing an fMRI scan of the brain during a ‘mind-wandering’ state is just as valuable.”

It’s suggested that it’s practical to evaluate all participants while they’re in a ‘mind-wandering’ state, as to avoid certain thoughts or triggers from causing outlier data.

The results

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Francesca Filbey, found that risk-taking teens have hyperconnectivity between the amygdala and areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with critical thinking skills and emotion regulation. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions. The nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex also showed increased activity, with the former often a point of study in addiction research.

What this all shows is that there’s a correlation between risk-takers and those whose minds are pre-conditioned to addiction.

Self-control systems: a common culprit

Another study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and elsewhere, found a link between risk-takers and their brains’ self-control systems. They used specialized software that examined brain regions prior to, and during, both a risky choice and a safe choice, in addition to a video game called Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), where participants can show their risk-taking tendencies by choosing to take a risk (by inflating a balloon further and earning money) or playing it safe (stop inflating the balloon and cashing out).

The balloon game is essentially a microcosm of other riskier choices, such as choosing to drink too much before driving home. With each additional drink consumed or additional air put into the balloon, there’s an increased risk of something unpleasant and potentially harmful occurring. The researchers used this concept to help study areas of the brain that are impacted when participants are confronted with a decision that involves risk.

The importance of these studies

Identifying the link between risk-taking and one’s brain could open several possibilities that have the potential to improve our lives. “Our findings are crucial in that they help identify potential brain biomarkers that, when taken into context with behavioral differences, may help identify which adolescents are at risk for dangerous and pathological behaviors in the future,” says DeWitt.

Similarly, the study that utilized the Balloon Analogue Risk Task accommodates the analysis of risk-taking in a controlled environment with little variability, which suggests that studying the correlation between the brain and risk-taking will become even more useful for scientists as additional research methods, like BART, emerge.


DeWitt SJ, Aslan S, & Filbey FM (2014). Adolescent risk-taking and resting state functional connectivity. Psychiatry research, 222 (3), 157-64 PMID: 24796655

Helfinstein SM, Schonberg T, Congdon E, Karlsgodt KH, Mumford JA, Sabb FW, Cannon TD, London ED, Bilder RM, & Poldrack RA (2014). Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (7), 2470-5 PMID: 24550270

Image via Mandy Godbehear / Shutterstock.

Daniel Faris

Mr. Daniel Faris pursued an unorthodox path in college, dual-majoring in biology and creative writing. He's put these very different skills to work as a freelance journalist, focusing on the technological and scientific advancements that help to shape politics, policy, and cultural change.
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