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Skydivers are considered thrill seekers and a new study shows why they might be wired for adventure.

Thrill seekers may be wired for adventure, brain imaging researchers find

by Alison Flowers
Nov 25, 2008

She has taken the leap herself 150 times and seen thousands of others do the same. But licensed skydiver Melissa Kenney of Chicagoland Skydiving Center, does remember one woman who couldn’t go through with the jump even after a five-hour drive to the site.

“I’m not sure what went through her head,” Kenney said.

Now new brain imaging research attempts to answer just that question: What exactly does go on in the brain of someone who prefers comfort and security compared to the person who thirsts for escapade and novelty?

A neurologist and psychologist teamed up at the University of Bonn in Germany to explore personality connections in the brain. Bernd Weber, Michael Cohen and colleagues surveyed a group of 20 volunteers to determine if they preferred novelty or comfort. The true-or-false questions were as simple as “I like to try new things just for fun” versus “I’d rather stay home than go out.”

The team then imaged the different brains and reported their findings online on this week’s Nature Neuroscience. Researchers discovered that the memory center of the brain was linked to the reward center for the adventure seekers identified by the questionnaire. But the brains of safety-seeking volunteers showed a greater connection between the reward center and the frontal lobe, which contributes to following social norms and cognitive functions such as determining cause and effect and decision-making.

One researcher at Northwestern University, Ann Ragin of the department of radiology, applies the same imaging method the Bonn scientists used but for a different goal. She studies early changes in the brain for those infected with HIV. The non-invasive technique called diffusion tensor imaging can also be used to locate brain tumors and shows promise for Alzheimer’s detection.

“It’s a very versatile strategy,” said Ragin, who researches at the Center for Advanced Imaging in Chicago.

The imaging is essentially a special MRI that examines water diffusion in the brain to detail its microstructure. Researchers manipulate these water molecules to map certain tracks in the brain, which allows different connections to be studied such as pathways to the reward center for adventure seekers.

This method also can be used to study the wiring correlated to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, according to Konstantinos Arfanakis, associate professor biomedical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“In schizophrenia, [researchers] found that there are differences in the wiring in the brain to the frontal lobe," said Arfanakis.

In his own research, he has used this technology to study road rage where changes in wiring also were apparent. But Arfanakis questioned how specifically an adventurous personality can be studied.

“You may have an adventurous person and that person may have other characteristics, too,” he said. “It’s not that ‘adventurous’ is an isolated characteristic.”

That’s what Kenney has found among her clients.

“There are the adrenaline junkies who are craving the adrenaline, but there are others who take it to a very scientific level,” she said, detailing the free-styling and formation jumping of these quasi-physicists.

Some clients look for higher, fiercer winds. And for others, free-falling isn’t enough. They like to do “gymnastics in the sky.”

“There are those people who think that the rules aren’t necessarily meant to be broken, but that they can be stretched,” she said of those skydivers who crave more and more novelty.

But even this skydiving subculture has its safety seekers.

“There are skydivers who are very, very safety conscious, who are almost a little overly safety conscious,” Kenney said.

Yet, depending on how someone is wired, playing it safe might mean staying home on solid ground in the first place.