Washington, October 10 : A new imaging study has revealed that the battle between lure of reward and fear of failure is rooted in the brain's architecture.
Neuroscientists at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute claim to have identified distinct brain regions with competing responses to risk, both of which are located in the prefrontal cortex, an area behind the forehead involved in analysis and planning.
During the study, the researchers gave volunteers a task that measures risk tolerance, and observed their reactions with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The team found that activity in one region identified risk-averse volunteers, while activity in a different region was greater in those with an appetite for risk.
"We can see risk as a battle between two forces. There is always a lure of reward. There's always a fear of failure. These are the two forces that are always battling each other," said Antoine Bechara, professor of psychology at USC.
In a previous study, Bechara and his colleagues had used the same task to measure risk tolerance in brain-damaged patients, and shown that the prefrontal cortex is critical for proper risk assessment.
However, because brain lesions differ in every patient and affect multiple areas, lesion-based studies usually cannot pinpoint the role of smaller brain regions.
Thus, the researchers decided to repeat the experiment with fMRI.
"We were interested in how normal people perform this task. What's going on in their brain?" asked first author Gui Xue, a postdoctoral research associate at the institute.
Bechara claimed that his team's study was the first to frame a person's risk profile in terms of the interaction between two brain regions.
Co-author Zhong-Lin Lu, professor of psychology at USC, said: "What this study has done is essentially localize two separate centers for the fear of risk and the lure of reward."
The study has been published in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.