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Daredevil behaviour of young people due to active reward centre in the brain

Young people tend to take more risks than children or adults. This trend is related to the reward centre in the brain, which is much more active when they are rewarded, PhD candidate Barbara Braams discovered. Personality, testosterone levels and social context also play a role in risk-taking.

More risks

Young people are more likely to have an accident in traffic or drink dangerous amounts of alcohol than adults. Psychologist Barbara Braams argues that a direct link can be found between risky behaviour and the development of the brain during that phase of your life.

A spike in the reward centre

The PhD candidate set up an experiment in which test subjects performed a series of tasks and could take additional risks to earn money. Braams: ‘On fMRI scans we could see that the reward centres in the brains of participants, who were around the age of seventeen, were much more active when winning money. That area of the brain becomes active when you’re eating something delicious or are given some other reward. Young people seem to experience rewards as exceptionally pleasant, and are therefore more likely to take risks to get the reward.’

Tested again two years later

The relationship between the development of the brain and taking risks has been the subject of previous studies, but those tended to yield mixed results. Braams’s study is new in a number of ways. What is especially remarkable is the scale of her study: she looked at 300 children, adolescents and adults between the ages of eight and twenty-six. Two years after the initial round of tests, she asked the same participants to do the exact same tasks again, which clearly showed their development over that period.

The influence of testosterone and personality

Aside from age, Braams also looked at the influence that testosterone and personality have on risk-taking. ‘In particular adolescents with relatively high testosterone levels displayed a lot of activity in the reward centre. But your personality type also plays a role. A lot of activity was also measured in the reward centres of those participants that revealed, in a questionnaire, that they go to a lot of effort to get rewarded in daily life.’

Playing for a friend

Barbara Braams
Barbara Braams

Braams also studied the influence of friends on risk-taking activity. During the gambling experiments, the participants were not just playing for themselves, but also for their best friend. It turned out that the reward centres of adolescents were only overly active when playing for themselves. What’s more, the margins in reward centre activity between playing for themselves or for their friends became increasingly smaller when looking at progressively older participants.

Preventing negative side effects

Braams argues that a lot of questions still need to be studied. Young people are more likely to take risks when with their friends; they are for instance more likely to be involved in a traffic accident when friends are with them in the car. Braams: ‘Questions such as how this happens and what part of the social context drives risky behaviour are still largely unanswered. I will be studying these issues at Harvard University over the coming years. Insight into the factors at the core of excessive risk-taking behaviour can help to prevent the negative health effects it has during maturity.’

PhD defence Barbara Braams 17 November 2015

(9 november 2015 - LvP)

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