High and low sensation seeking adolescents show distinct patterns of brain activity during reward processing

Neuroimage. 2013 Feb 1;66:184-93. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.11.003. Epub 2012 Nov 9.


Previous research has shown that personality characteristics, such as sensation seeking (SS), are strong predictors of risk-taking behavior during adolescence. However, the relationship between levels of SS and brain response has not been studied during this time period. Given the prevalence of risky behavior during adolescence, it is important to understand neurobiological differences in reward sensitivity between youth with high and low SS personalities. To this end, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine differences in brain activity in an adolescent sample that included 27 high (HSS) and 27 low sensation seekers (LSS), defined by the Impulsive Sensation Seeking scale of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (Zuckerman et al., 1993). In the scanner, participants played a modified Wheel of Fortune decision-making task (Cservenka and Nagel, 2012) that resulted in trials with monetary Wins or No Wins. We compared age- and sex-matched adolescent HSS and LSS (mean age=13.94±1.05) on brain activity by contrasting Win vs. No Win trials. Our findings indicate that HSS show greater bilateral insular and prefrontal cortex (PFC) brain response on Win vs. No Win compared to LSS. Analysis of simple effects showed that while LSS showed comparable brain activity in these areas during Wins and No Wins, HSS showed significant differences in brain response to winning (activation) vs. not winning (deactivation), with between-group comparison suggesting significant differences in brain response, largely to reward absence. Group differences in insular activation between reward receipt and absence may suggest weak autonomic arousal to negative outcomes in HSS compared with LSS. Additionally, since the PFC is important for goal-directed behavior and attention, the current results may reflect that HSS allocate fewer attentional resources to negative outcomes than LSS. This insensitivity to reward absence in HSS may lead to a greater likelihood of maladaptive choices when negative consequences are not considered, and may be an early neural marker of decreased loss sensitivity that has been seen in addiction. This neurobiological information may ultimately be helpful in establishing prevention strategies aimed at reducing youth risk-taking and suggests value in further examination of neural associations with personality characteristics during adolescence.

Keywords: Adolescence; Reward; Sensation seeking; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Personality / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Risk-Taking*