Fear of adventure? Check your grey matter integrity

I don’t know about you, but since I am getting older I realize there are things that I find scarier as before. For example, when I see kids learning to ski, I always wonder at the ease with which they let themselves go down a mountain, while I cannot stop thinking if by the time I get to the bottom I will still have all my bones in place. We take it it is a natural effect of aging: we become more conservative, we try to avoid innecesary risks, those we seeked as teenagers, theoretically because we are more mature and experienced. But is that really the case? Are we smarter or is that just a sign that things in our brain are already going down the slope?

New research published in the journal Nature shows that a possible reason behind this behavioral change might lie in a structural change to our brains, namely to grey matter volume in the right posterior parietal cortex. The researches took brain scans of 52 people between 18 and 88 finding a correlation between small grey matter volume in this brain region and conservative decision-making. When trying to narrow down the functional relationships between decision-making and grey matter volume, they used a decision-making paradigm based on rewards and placed the subjects under an fMRI machine (a functional brain scanner). However, when looking at the results from these experiments no clear correlation/causation could be found, pointing towards a more complex network as being involved in decision-making and risk-aversion.

This research is obviously interesting for it holds great potential for helping decision-making in old age, but as preliminary brain research it is important to beware high expectations that just by limiting grey matter shrinkage in the right posterior parietal cortex, we will be able of weighing out risk as good (hopefully better) as in our teens. However, I remain hopeful that in the near future there will be something that will help me feel the confidence and lack of fear of kids at the ski slopes 😉

Nat Commun. 2016 Dec 13;7:13822. doi: 10.1038/ncomms13822.Neuroanatomy accounts for age-related changes in risk preferences. Grubb MA, Tymula A, Gilaie-Dotan S, Glimcher PW, Levy I.