Neural Circuits Associated with Risky Decisions Identified: Study
There are times when logical decisions are taken after a lot of deliberation and struggle, while risky decisions happen just at the spur of the moment, effortlessly. A recent study has discovered an area of the brain associated with decisions made under conditions of uncertainty.
The findings can help in the treatment of psychiatric problems like anxiety disorders. The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience in July 2016, identified a region of the brain involved when decisions are made under uncertainty, including some of the cells involved in the decision-making process.
The researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said that the findings could help in psychiatric problems that involve miscuing risk, problem gambling and other anxiety problems.
“We know from human imaging studies that certain parts of the brain are more or less active in risk-seeking people, but the neural circuits involved are largely unknown,” said senior author of the study Ilya Monosov, Ph.D., and an assistant professor of neuroscience.
‘Value-coding neurons got suppressed while making risky choice’
“We found a population of value-coding neurons that are specifically suppressed when animals make a risky choice,” Monosov added.
The researchers conducted the study on a group of rhesus monkeys because their brains are structured quite similar to human brains. The rhesus monkeys were then made to choose between a small amount of juice or a 50–50 chance of receiving double the amount of juice or nothing at all. But the amount of juice received after a certain point of time would be equivalent, just that one option would be safe and the other fraught with risk.
The researchers found that the monkeys mostly preferred the risky option against the safer bet. Observing closely, it was found that when the monkeys chose a risky option over a safe one, a group of value-coding neurons in the ventral pallidum was selectively suppressed. Value-coding neurons are cells whose activity reflects the value of a stimulus and the ventral pallidum is a part of the brain that plays a pivotal role in controlling levels of dopamine, a molecule that gives a feel-good factor.
It became apparent that the more juice the monkeys were offered, the bigger the response of the neurons. But shortly before a monkey made a risky choice, these neurons became suppressed.
“The ventral pallidum inhibits dopamine neurons, and suppression of this area during risky behavior may increase dopamine release,” said Monosov.
Even human lives are strewn with choices, some safe and many risky. When the system of evaluating risks in a person goes awry, it can severely impact his or her life. Compulsive gambling, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are signs linked to maladaptive risky behaviors in people. Hence, people with anxiety disorder err too far on the side of caution, the researchers said.
The researchers are trying to find how targeted drug treatments can be utilized to affect the monkeys’ risk preferences and the strategies they apply to learn. They believe that the findings of the study would help them in this endeavor. “There are no anatomically targeted treatments for psychiatric disorders associated with misjudging risks, such as pathological gambling and anxiety,” Monosov said.
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