Inactive Self-Control Systems in the Brain Tied to Risky Behaviors

Risky behaviors like unprotected sex or DUI seem to be the result of a driven personality that cannot seem to get enough of something. However, a recent study shows that it may be a lack of self-control instead of a pronounced level of desire that leads to risk-taking. The findings may lead to new ways of thinking about how to treat mental disorders, addictions and other disorders related to risk-taking. It may also have implications for how the criminal justice system determines the risk of a perpetrator becoming a repeat offender.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine brain activity in 108 participants as they played a video game that simulated the kinds of risk-taking associated with real-life risky behaviors.

The team used special software with one set of subjects that could determine patterns of brain activity in the time before the individual made a risky or a safe choice. The researchers then set up the software to predict the choices of other participants based only on brain activity. The software correctly predicted the choices 71 percent of the time.

Russell Poldrack, director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas and professor of psychology and neuroscience, said that the patterns were so distinct that the software allowed for a correct prediction not only in the same person but across other groups of participants as well.

The researchers determined that when a person makes a risky decision it’s due to the failure of the brain’s control system to prevent it.

Sarah Helfinstein, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas, says that everyone experiences desires, but whether the individual acts on them is a result of a control function.

Further research may focus on the interaction between control systems and the ways that peer pressure or physical variables like exhaustion or hunger impact risky decisions. Helfinstein says that understanding the variables that can influence the brain may lead to a better understanding of what actions may help individuals make good choices.

The video game used in the study is called the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). It has been shown to provide an accurate impression of the brain’s activity during risky decisions, such as choosing to smoke, use drugs, drive without a seatbelt or steal.

The BART shows a balloon on the screen and invites the player to either make a risky choice by inflating the balloon, which can earn the player money but may lead to the balloon popping, or cashing out and keeping the money earned so far. The reward size remains the same but the losses become increasingly large.

The researchers believe the game mimics situations in which risks are taken in real life, such as determining how many drinks to consume before driving home or how many times a drug can be used before an addiction develops.

The study could impact the treatment of various mental disorders, including substance use disorders. Understanding the role of the control system and learning ways to increase its activity through therapy or medication could help patients improve their quality of life and recover from their disorder.