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The neurobiology of risk: the ventral striatum

The ventral striatum is a relatively small area tucked deep inside the brain near the basal ganglia. Until recently, not much was known about it. But it’s recently been linked to reward, decisions, and risk, and as a result is getting much more press than it used to. It’s important in what we perceive as rewarding (such as status and keeping up with the Joneses) and how rewarding it is. It’s been linked to pathological gambling, and it matters when you’re thinking about what to do next with your portfolio.

The ventral striatum consists of two portions, the nucleus accumbens and the olfactory tubercle. Its most important neurotransmitter–to our current knowledge–is dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and with motor functions. (Dopamine-increasing drugs are used to treat Parkinson’s disease.) The ventral striatum is closely linked with the limbic system, which involves emotion and motivation: it receives input from it and sends output to it, mainly inhibitory. It’s thought that the ventral striatum helps to suppress certain mechanisms in the limbic system, thereby selecting the appropriate ones and silencing others.

When you consider all that, it’s a natural nominee for the reward center of the brain, and that seems to be its function. There have been several studies recently that look at different kinds of reward, and they all light up the ventral striatum. As described in the Society for Neuroscience, anticipating financial gain increases dopamine in the ventral striatum, which increases pleasure. Thinking about loss, on the other hand, decreases dopamine. It turns out that most people are more sensitive to decreases of dopamine than increases, which is where risk aversion comes from. The ventral striatum tells your limbic system that the behavior you’re considering is risky or that the loss you’ve just suffered is a bad thing, and the limbic system tells your conscious mind that it feels bad about what just happened, which affects your decision-making.

The ventral striatum is a tiny structure with big effects on our behavior. Most of decision-making, including financial decision-making, includes processing risk, which includes weighing rewards and losses. The ventral striatum is instrumental in modulating those behaviors and processes.

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2 Responses to “The neurobiology of risk: the ventral striatum”

  1. […] The neurobiology of risk: the ventral striatum […]

  2. […] you read my previous post on the neurobiology of risk, you may recall that the ventral striatum regulates risk and rewards. In most people, thinking about winning money increases dopamine in the ventral striatum, and […]

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