Functional imaging studies examining the neural correlates of risk have mainly relied on paradigms involving exposure to simple chance gambles and an economic definition of risk as variance in the probability distribution over possible outcomes. However, there is little evidence that choices made during gambling tasks predict naturalistic risk-taking behaviors such as drug use, extreme sports, or even equity investing.To better understand the neural basis of naturalistic risk-taking, we scanned participants using fMRI while they completed the Balloon Analog Risk Task, an experimental measure that includes an active decision/choice component and that has been found to correlate with a number of naturalistic risk-taking behaviors. In the task, as in many naturalistic settings, escalating risk-taking occurs under uncertainty and might be experienced either as the accumulation of greater potential rewards, or as exposure to increasing possible losses (and decreasing expected value). We found that areas previously linked to risk and risk-taking (bilateral anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) were activated as participants continued to inflate balloons. Interestingly, we found that ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) activity decreased as participants further expanded balloons. In light of previous findings implicating the vmPFC in value calculation, this result suggests that escalating risk-taking in the task might be perceived as exposure to increasing possible losses (and decreasing expected value) rather than the increasing potential total reward relative to the starting point of the trial. A better understanding of how neural activity changes with risk-taking behavior in the task offers insight into the potential neural mechanisms driving naturalistic risk-taking.
- Ventromedial prefrontal cortex