Age-Related Decrease in Dopamine Linked To Older People Taking Fewer Risks

Dr Robb Rutledge UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research University College London

Dr Robb Rutledge Interview with:
Dr Robb Rutledge
UCL Institute of Neurology and
Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research
University College London What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Rutledge: As we get older, dopamine levels in the brain gradually decline.

Dopamine has long been associated with risk taking and we have
recently found that it is related specifically to how willing people
are to take risks for potential rewards. It is widely believed that
older people are risk averse, but this is controversial, and it is
unknown whether age-related changes in dopamine are responsible for
changes in risk taking. In this study, we tested over 25,000 people
using a smartphone app called The Great Brain Experiment where players
tried to win as many points as they could by choosing between safe and
risky options. We found that older people were less willing to takes
risks for potential rewards than young people, the same situations
dopamine is known to be involved in. What should readers take away from your report?

Dr. Rutledge: Loss of dopamine that naturally occurs with age seems to make older
people less attracted to the promise of potential rewards. As a
result, older people are less willing to take risks for potential
gains but no different from young people when it comes to potential
losses. We couldn’t have made this discovery about how getting older
affects decision making without the help of thousands of people around
the world playing our game for just a few minutes on their
smartphones, and this is a great example of how smartphones can be
used to get people around the world involved in scientific research. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Rutledge: Age-related decline in dopamine is the best explanation for why older
people take fewer risks for rewards. However, we still don’t know much
about what happens in the brain when people are making decisions that
involve potential losses and whether other brain chemicals like
serotonin play a bigger role in how people make those kinds of
decisions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Rutledge: Anyone that would like to contribute to our ongoing research can
download our smartphone app The Great Brain Experiment for iPhone or
Android. The game that was the subject of this research is called
‘What makes me happy?’ and there are eight games in total that people
can play to help scientists understand the brain. Thank you for your contribution to the community.

Robb B. Rutledge et al. Risk Taking for Potential Reward Decreases across the Lifespan. Current Biology, June 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.017
Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on June 3, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD