Risk-taking and the adolescent brain: who is at risk?


Address for correspondence: B.J. Casey, The Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, 1300 York Ave, Box 140, New York 10021, USA; e-mail: bjc2002@med.cornell.edu


Relative to other ages, adolescence is described as a period of increased impulsive and risk-taking behavior that can lead to fatal outcomes (suicide, substance abuse, HIV, accidents, etc.). This study was designed to examine neural correlates of risk-taking behavior in adolescents, relative to children and adults, in order to predict who may be at greatest risk. Activity in reward-related neural circuitry in anticipation of a large monetary reward was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging, and anonymous self-report ratings of risky behavior, anticipation of risk and impulsivity were acquired in individuals between the ages of 7 and 29 years. There was a positive association between accumbens activity and the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior across development. This activity also varied as a function of individuals’ ratings of anticipated positive or negative consequences of such behavior. Impulsivity ratings were not associated with accumbens activity, but rather with age. These findings suggest that during adolescence, some individuals may be especially prone to engage in risky behaviors due to developmental changes in concert with variability in a given individual's predisposition to engage in risky behavior, rather than to simple changes in impulsivity.