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People use separate brain mechanisms to make ambiguous and risky choices

Distinct regions of the human brain are activated when people are faced with ambiguous choices versus choices involving only risk, Duke University Medical Center researchers have discovered.

The investigators found that they could predict activation of different brain areas, based on how averse study participants were toward either risk or ambiguity. The finding confirms what economists have long debated -- that different attitudes toward perceived risk and ambiguity in decision-making situations may reflect a basic distinction in brain function, the researchers said. Such fundamental knowledge of neural functioning will contribute to an understanding of why people make risky choices, and how such risk-taking can become pathological, as in addiction or compulsive gambling, they added.

Their study appears in the March 2, 2006 issue of Neuron. The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Duke.

"We were able to see individual differences in brain activation depending on the person's preferences or aversions to risk and ambiguity," said Scott Huettel, Ph.D., lead author and a neuroscientist with the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. "People who preferred ambiguity had increased activation in the prefrontal cortex, and people who preferred risk had increased activation in the parietal cortex. This opens up the possibility that there are specific neural mechanisms for different forms of economic decision making, which is a very exciting idea."

The team collected data from 13 adult participants who were asked to choose between pairs of monetary "gambles" that were predetermined to be 'certain', 'risky' or 'ambiguous'. For the risky choices, subjects were told the odds that they would win the gambles, but for the ambiguous choices, subjects were not given this information. The participants were rewarded with a cash payout based upon
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Contact: Tracey Koepke
koepk002@mc.duke.edu
919-660-1301
Duke University Medical Center
3-Mar-2006


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