The uncertain brain: A co-ordinate based meta-analysis of the neural signatures supporting uncertainty during different contexts

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Jan:96:241-249. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.12.013. Epub 2018 Dec 11.


Uncertainty is often inevitable in everyday life and can be both stressful and exciting. Given its relevance to psychopathology and wellbeing, recent research has begun to address the brain basis of uncertainty. In the current review we examined whether there are discrete and shared neural signatures for different uncertain contexts. From the literature we identified three broad categories of uncertainty currently empirically studied using functional MRI (fMRI): basic threat and reward uncertainty, decision-making under uncertainty, and associative learning under uncertainty. We examined the neural basis of each category by using a coordinate based meta-analysis, where brain activation foci from previously published fMRI experiments were drawn together (1998-2017; 87 studies). The analyses revealed shared and discrete patterns of neural activation for uncertainty, such as the insula and amygdala, depending on the category. Such findings will have relevance for researchers attempting to conceptualise uncertainty, as well as clinical researchers examining the neural basis of uncertainty in relation to psychopathology.

Keywords: Amygdala; Anterior insula; Anticipation; Associative learning; Decision-making; Uncertainty; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Uncertainty*