Brain activation can predict the strategies people use to make risky decisions

DURHAM, N.C. – Watching people’s brains in real time as they handle a set of decision-making problems can reveal how different each person’s strategy can be, according to neuroscientists at the Duke University Medical Center.

"People in our study, like the population at large, differed in the strategies they use to make economic decisions," said Scott Huettel, Ph.D., co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and senior author of the study published in Neuron online on May 27. "What sort of strategy people tended to use could be predicted, surprisingly, by how their brain responded to rewards: if there were large responses to monetary reward in a brain area called the ventral striatum, that person tended to simplify decision problems to only consider winning or losing."

"Using studies like this to build a better understanding of how our brains represent our decision strategies may someday allow researchers to use someone’s personal traits – say, an adolescent with high impulsivity, but ongoing depression – to predict the decisions that he or she will make," Huettel said. "This could lead to many real-world benefits: designing more effective interventions or creating more useful educational material."

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