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Neuroimage. 2008 Aug 15;42(2):902-10. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.05.046. Epub 2008 Jun 3.

Neural correlates of voluntary and involuntary risk taking in the human brain: an fMRI Study of the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART).

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  • 1Center for Functional Neuroimaging, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


Increasing effort has been devoted to understanding the neural mechanisms underlying decision making during risk, yet little is known about the effect of voluntary choice on risk taking. The Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART), in which subjects inflate a virtual balloon that can either grow larger or explode [Lejuez, C.W., Read, J.P., Kahler, C.W., Richards, J.B., Ramsey, S.E., Stuart, G.L., Strong, D.R., Brown, R.A., 2002. Evaluation of a behavioral measure of risk taking: the Balloon Analogue Risk Task BART. J. Exp. Psychol. Appl. 8, 75-84.], provides an ecologically valid model to assess human risk taking propensity and behaviour. In the present study, we modified this task for use during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and administered it in both an active choice mode and a passive no-choice mode in order to examine the neural correlates of voluntary and involuntary risk taking in the human brain. Voluntary risk in the active choice task is associated with robust activation in mesolimbic-frontal regions, including the midbrain, ventral and dorsal striatum, anterior insula, dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and anterior cingulate/medial frontal cortex (ACC/MFC), in addition to activation in visual pathway regions. However, these mesolimbic-frontal activation patterns were not observed for involuntary risk in the passive no-choice task. Decision making was associated with neural activity in the right DLPFC. These findings demonstrate the utility of the modified BART paradigms for using during fMRI to assess risk taking in the human brain, and suggest that recruitment of the brain mesolimbic-frontal pathway during risk-taking is contingent upon the agency of the risk taker. The present paradigm may be extended to pathological populations to determine the specific neural components of their impaired risk behavior.

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