Risk-takers have different brains than cautious individuals, study shows

ZURICH, Switzerland — If you enjoy jumping out of an airplane or climbing challenging mountains, you may be “wired” differently. People who take more risks have different brains compared to their more cautious peers, a study finds.

There are major functional and anatomical distinctions among those who are likely to smoke, use alcohol or drugs, speed, or have many sexual partners, neurologists have said. A prior survey of British adults found that about half describe themselves as risk-takers, and try to take small risks to increase their adrenaline levels.

But researchers say risks can lead to enormous health and economic consequences, with costs of an estimated $600 billion each year in the U.S. alone.

‘Functional and anatomical’ brain differences in risky people

For the study, a Swiss team of neurologists, together with an international research team, examined 25,000 people and found a relationship between differences in brain anatomy and the propensity to engage in risks. Distinct characteristics were found in the hypothalamus, which controls “happy” hormones like oxytocin and dopamine; the hippocampus, which stores memories; and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which plays an important role in self-control.

Other characteristics were found in the amygdala, which controls the emotional reaction to danger, and the ventral striatum, which is activated when processing rewards. Surprisingly the scientists were finding measurable differences in the cerebellum, which plays an important role in decision-making processes, and found less gray matter in those areas.

“We found both functional and anatomical differences,” says co-author Dr. Goekhan Aydogan, of the University of Zurich, in a statement.  “It appears that the cerebellum does after all play an important role in decision-making processes such as risk-taking behavior. In the brains of more risk-tolerant individuals, we found less grey matter in these areas. How this grey matter affects behavior, however, still needs to be studied further.”

The scientists warn that more research needs to be done regarding how a person’s environment affects their genetic disposition to risk-taking.

“How exactly the interplay of environment and genes determines risk-taking requires further research,” adds Dr. Aydogan.

The study is published in Nature Human Behavior.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.