Penn Med
Credit: Madison Valerio

Risky behavior may partially be the result of biology, a new Penn study shows. 

This study led by Penn scientists shows a link between the structure of a person's brain and the individual’s propensity towards risk-taking. Researchers focused on studying the amygdala, the part of the brain that helps control a person's emotions, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which aids with decision making and long-term memory.  

"We assessed risk tolerance by giving people an opportunity to gamble," lead author and associate professor of psychology at Penn Joseph Kable said to EurkAlert!. "We assessed how willing individuals were of accepting the risk of getting nothing for the chance of getting a higher amount of money."  

The study's 108 participants each answered a questionnaire containing 120 scenarios, in addition to having their amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex measured and analyzed, the article said.

The researchers, who work in Penn's Psychology department as well as in the Perelman School of Medicine, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Diffusion Tensor Imaging tools to measure the size of the amygdala and the volume of grey and white matter in the amygdala. They also measured the connectedness between the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex.

The study found that individuals with a larger amygdala, and greater amygdala-mPFC connectivity displayed a higher tolerance for risk taking. Kable said to EurkAlert! that the team was able to look at a person's brain and have a "reasonable idea" of how willing a person would be to take risks.

In the future, the researchers are hoping to collaborate with financial planning organizations to determine a client’s individual risk tolerance level so that firms can give the best possible advice. Although these advancements are promising, it is too early to design and implement such a system that could help financial design-making and gambling addictions, Medical Daily reported.

"Risk taking is a complex phenomenon that is likely influenced by many factors," Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta Professor Timothy Caulfield said to Forbes. "It seems like a big leap to go from a lab study to using this technology to inform financial decisions."

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.