Let’s say you had $10 and could place a bet with even odds to win or lose $3. Would you take it? What if you had a really good chance of winning a little and a low chance of losing a lot? Or a low chance of a big win with a higher chance of a small loss?
The choices you make in each those scenarios appear to come down to a tract of neurons in your brain. If that neuronal pathway has a lot of fatty insulation – an indication of a strong connection — you’ll make less risky decisions. A less insulated pathway makes it more likely that you will take a bigger risk.
That’s what psychology professor Brian Knutson, PhD, found when he used a relatively new technique to investigate the relationship between two brain regions known as the anterior insula and nucleus accumbens.
"Activity in one brain region appears to indicate 'Uh oh, I might lose money,' but in another seems to indicate 'Oh yay, I could win something,'” Knutson told me.
The tract of neurons Knutson and his team discovered appears to provide a pathway for the more cautious region to dampen the enthusiasm of excitable region.
In my story about the work, I wrote about Knutson’s next steps:
Knutson said that finding the connection between the two regions won't immediately lead to new interventions for people with gambling problems or other issues relating to risky choices, but it does provide a starting point for studying interventions.
"Now we can start asking interesting questions about impulse control and gambling," Knutson said. "For example, does the connection change over the course of therapy?"