Researchers Uncover the Neurobiological Basis For Risk Aversion as We Age

December 13, 2016

New research out of NYU’s Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Decision Making (NYU IISDM) shows how age itself is not the determining factor in how an individuals views or tolerates risk when making decisions, but rather it is the age-related decline in the volume of grey matter in the right posterior parietal cortex (rPPC). The study measured gray matter volume (GMV) in 52 adults between the ages of 18–88 years old. The new findings were published today in Nature Communications, one of the leading scholarly publications for neuroscience research.

According to the research, “Grey matter loss is part of healthy aging, with parietal regions showing particularly enhanced local declines. Therefore, an intriguing possibility is that reduced rPPC GMV, rather than age per se, may best account for the increased risk aversion empirically observed during aging.”

Lead author of the paper, Professor Ifat Levy, Associate Professor of Comparative Medicine and of Neuroscience at Yale University and Visiting Professor at NYU IISDM, explains:

“Older adults need to make many important financial and medical decisions, often under high levels of uncertainty. We know that decision making changes with age, but we don’t really know what the biological basis of these changes is. In this paper, we make the first step towards answering this question, by showing that the decrease in gray matter volume in a particular part of the brain – posterior parietal cortex – accounts for the increase in risk aversion observed with age.”

Because there are so many factors involved in an individual’s risk tolerance, the researchers identify future research that will need to account for these factors and how they influence one another in conjunction with the new findings discovered by Levy et al.

Along with Professor Levy, researchers across five institutions and 3 continents contributed to this paper, including NYU IISDM Director, Professor Paul Glimcher; an NYU postdoctoral fellow at the time of the study and now an assistant professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, Michael A. Grubb; Professor Agnieszka Tymula of the University of Sydney (and Visiting Professor at NYU IISDM); and Dr. Sharon Gilaie-Dotan of University College London and Bar Ilan University (Israel).

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health (R01 5R01AG033406, R21AG049293).