Neurobiology of dread gives scientists clues about human decision making

ATLANTA -- In order to better understand how people make decisions when the outcomes are known to be unpleasant, a team of Emory neuroscientists led by Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine the areas of the brain that are activated when someone experiences dread. The study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Drug Abuse (NIDA), was published in the May 5, 2006 issue of the journal Science. The study was part of a research program in the growing field of neuroeconomics, an area in which neuroscience methods are being applied to economic questions.

"Most people don't like waiting for an unpleasant outcome, and want to get it over with as soon as possible," explains Dr. Berns, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. "The only explanation for this is that the dread of having something hanging over your head is worse than the thing that you are dreading. It is a commonplace experience, but standard economic models of decision-making don't deal with this issue. So, we decided to take a biological approach and see what happens in the brain that might cause people to make such rash decisions."

The study was conducted using an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of the study participants while delivering a series of low voltage shocks to the foot of each participant, with different levels of intensity and different time delays up to the shock. Each of the participants in the study was screened to determine their maximal pain threshold. While in the MRI scanner, participants underwent a series of 96 shocks. Before each shock, they were told how painful the shock would be (as a percent of their threshold) and how long they would have to wait for it. After the scanning procedure, they were then given the opportunity to choose between different intensity-delay combinations, the choice was always between more pain s

Contact: Kathi Baker
Emory University Health Sciences Center

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