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Monday, November 7, 2022

Neural processes in antecedent anxiety modulate risk-taking behavior

Nash, K., Leota, J., & Tran, A. (2021). 
Scientific Reports, 11.


Though real-world decisions are often made in the shadow of economic uncertainties, work problems, relationship troubles, existential angst, etc., the neural processes involved in this common experience remain poorly understood. Here, we randomly assigned participants (N = 97) to either a poignant experience of forecasted economic anxiety or a no-anxiety control condition. Using electroencephalography (EEG), we then examined how source-localized, anxiety-specific neural activation modulated risky decision making and strategic behavior in the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). Previous research demonstrates opposing effects of anxiety on risk-taking, leading to contrasting predictions. On the one hand, activity in the dorsomedial PFC/anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula, brain regions linked with anxiety and sensitivity to risk, should mediate the effect of economic anxiety on increased risk-averse decision-making. On the other hand, activation in the ventromedial PFC, a brain region important in emotion regulation and subjective valuation in decision-making, should mediate the effect of economic anxiety on increased risky decision-making. Results revealed evidence related to both predictions. Additionally, anxiety-specific activation in the dmPFC/ACC and the anterior insula were associated with disrupted learning across the task. These results shed light on the neurobiology of antecedent anxiety and risk-taking and provide potential insight into understanding how real-world anxieties can impact decision-making processes. 


Rarely, in everyday life, must we make a series of decisions as anxious events fit in and out of awareness. Rather, we often face looming anxieties that spill over into the decisions we make. Here, we experimentally induced this real-world experience, in which we examined how antecedent anxiety and the accompanying neural processes modulated decision-making in a risk-taking task. Based on past research demonstrating that anxiety can have diverging effects on risk-taking, we formulated contrasting predictions. An anxious experience should modulate dmPFC/dACC and anterior insula activity, brain regions tightly linked with anxious worry, and this anxiety-specific activation should predict more risk-averse decisions in the BART. Alternatively, anxiety should modulate activation in the vmPFC, a brain region important in emotion regulation and decision-making and this anxiety-specific activation should then predict more risk-seeking decisions in the BART, through disrupted cognitive control or heightened sensitivity to reward.

We found evidence related to both predictions. On the one hand, right anterior insula activation specific to
antecedent anxiety predicted decreased risk-taking. This finding is consistent with considerable research on the neural mechanisms of risk and the limited prior research on incidental anxiety and decision-making. For example, the threat of shock during a decision-making task increased the anterior insula’s coding of negative evaluations and this activation predicted increased rejection rate of risky lottery decisions. For the first time, we extend these prior results to antecedent anxiety. The experience of economic anxiety is a poignant and difficult to regulate event. Presumably, right anterior insula activation caused by the economic anxiety manipulation sustained a more cautious approach to negative outcomes that trickled-down to risk-averse decision-making.