Sitting in an office, sipping on my favorite cup of cappuccino, in an environment brewing with creativity, still a thought racing through the back of my mind, “Is this it for me? What if I were braver in that moment in life and had risked more, would the reward have been greater?”
Every day is an ongoing battle where we choose between a safe option and a riskier yet more rewarding one. New research has recently brought the workings of our brain into the limelight as we decide whether to make a risky decision or play it safe.
“We found a population of value-coding neurons that are specifically suppressed when animals make a risky choice,” said Ilya Monosov, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington University and senior author of the study. Value-coding neurons are cells whose activity reflects the value of a stimulus. In a study involving a monkey, whenever more juice was offered to the subject, there was a bigger neuronal response but when faced with a risky choice, these neurons became suppressed.
To study the neuronal effects of risk taking, rhesus monkeys were given a choice between a small amount of juice and a 50-50 chance of receiving double the amount of juice or absolutely nothing. Their findings revealed that the monkey like to play the riskier option more often. Once again, the researchers were astonished to discover that a group of value-coding neurons in the ventral pallidum were selectively suppressed when the monkeys chose the risky option instead of the safe one.
“The ventral pallidum inhibits dopamine neurons, and suppression of this area during risky behavior may increase dopamine release,” suggested Monosov. Furthermore, studies later proved that when the monkeys made a risky choice, neurons in the medial basal forebrain became more active.
In a nutshell, risk evaluation is a vital part of our lives and when this system is rendered useless, it can have severe consequences such as compulsive gambling.