Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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How the Brain Makes Decisions

By Carolyn Sayre Dec. 19, 2006

Deal or no deal? At first glance, it may seem like greed is the only thing driving a contestant's answer to Howie Mandel's famous question. But new research shows that there may be more behind a game show contestant's decision than meets the eye.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have found that the brain controls an individual's preference for immediate or delayed rewards. The results appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In the small study, 45 adults were placed in a laboratory version of Deal or No Deal. Each participant was given a choice of immediately winning a prize that ranged from 10 cents to $105 or waiting anywhere from one week to five years to receive a guaranteed $100. The volunteer's decisions were scrutinized to determine how the brain makes reward-based decisions.

The study showed that an individual's decision to immediately take the reward or delay gratification could be determined by the level of activity in the person's ventral striatum ? an important part of the brain's circuitry. The adults who were labeled as impulsive decision makers or exhibited delay discounting had more activity in the ventral striatum than adults who were willing to wait for the rewards.

What it means: Previous studies have shown that addiction disorders like substance abuse and gambling are associated with a more active ventral striatum. However, this study is the first to show that the brain's circuitry is also a factor in individuals who show delayed discounting. The findings offer additional insights into understanding and treating addiction disorders. Next step: the researchers will see if increased ventral striatum can predict if an individual will develop an addiction disorder.

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