March 3, 2013

Using MRI, Cornell Study Examines Way Adolescents Evaluate Risk

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The National Institute of Health has awarded $1.7 million to a team of Cornell researchers to study the links between the adolescent brain and risk-taking. The study will utilize a new Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine at Cornell to observe the brain activity of adolescents and adults during the decision-making process.

According to the Prof. Valerie Reyna, human development, the team of researchers will be examining the ways in which adolescents and adults analyze risky or dangerous situations.

“The grant is about understanding how perception of risk and reward influence adolescents differently than adults, often in ways that are counter intuitive” Reyna said.

The hypothesis of the study –– that adolescents make finer distinctions between levels of risk and reward than adults do –– contradicts much conventional knowledge about young people and risk taking, according to Reyna.

“People assume that young people think that they’re invincible based on their risky behavior,” Reyna said. “In fact, adolescents overestimate risk, and the math [in terms of economic rationalism] usually works out. But correct mathematics does not mean correct decision making when teens miss the gist of the decision.”

This study will mark the first use of the new Cornell MRI Facility, in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, which will greatly expand the research opportunities available to Cornell scientists, according to Reyna, who is also the co-director of the facility.

“It will really open up enormous new vistas of research. We can ask questions that we couldn’t ask before,” Reyna said.

Equipped with a state-of-the-art, NIH-funded Discovery MR750 3.0T –– an MRI machine that scans brain activity with greater precision than the typical hospital MRI –– the new facility will allow researchers to closely examine the ways in which the adolescent brain reacts when making decisions about risks in comparison to the adult brain, according to Prof. David Dunning, psychology, who is also working on the grant.

“The new facility is a great companion piece of technology [that will] add to more traditional behavioral techniques,” Dunn said.

Reyna said the study has brought together a multidisciplinary team of researchers from a wide array of academic fields, including economics, psychology, neuroscience, human development and physics.

“We’re able to integrate and contrast economic models of rationality with psychological models of risk taking,” Reyna said.

Other investigators on the grant include Prof. William Schulze, agricultural economics and public policy; Prof. Brian Wansink, consumer behavior; Prof. Barbara Ganzel, human development; Prof. Ted O’Donoghue, economics and Prof. Henning Voss, physics and radiology.

Original Author: Christopher Yates