Risk taking, decision-making, and brain volume in youth adopted internationally from institutional care

Max P. Herzberg, Amanda S. Hodel, Raquel A. Cowell, Ruskin H. Hunt, Megan R. Gunnar, Kathleen M. Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Early life stress in the form of early institutional care has been shown to have wide-ranging impacts on the biological and behavioral development of young children. Studies of brain structure using magnetic resonance imaging have reported decreased prefrontal volumes, and a large literature has detailed decreased executive function (EF) in post-institutionalized (PI) youth. Little is known about how these findings relate to decision-making, particularly in PI youth entering adolescence—a period often characterized by social transition and increased reliance upon EF skills and the still-maturing prefrontal regions that support them. As decision-making in risky situations can be an especially important milestone in early adolescence, a clearer knowledge of the relationship between risky decision making and prefrontal structures in post-institutionalized youth is needed. The youth version of the Balloon Analogue Risk Task and a two-deck variant of the Iowa Gambling Task were used to assess risky decision-making in post-institutionalized youth and a community control group (N = 74, PI = 44, Non-adopted = 30; mean age = 12.93). Participants also completed a structural MRI scan for the assessment of group differences in brain structure. We hypothesized that participants adopted from institutions would display poorer performance on risky-decision making tasks and smaller brain volumes compared to non-adopted youth. Results indicated that later-adopted participants made fewer risky decisions than those experiencing shorter periods of deprivation or no institutional rearing. Further, decreased prefrontal volumes were observed in later-adopted youth and were significantly associated with task performance. Our results suggest that changes in risky-decision making behavior and brain structure are associated with the duration of early institutional care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)262-270
Number of pages9
StatePublished - Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a NIMH Grant to MRG and KMT ( P50-MH79513 , Project II), a University of Minnesota Graduate School Fellowship Award (ASH), a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award ( T32-HD007151 to ASH), the University of Minnesota Center for Neurobehavioral Development ( T32-MH73129 ), and the University of Minnesota Center for Magnetic Resonance Research ( P41 RR008079 , P41 EB015894 , and P30 NS076408 ). The authors thank the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI) at the University of Minnesota for providing resources that contributed to the research results reported within this paper ( http://www.msi.umn.edu ), collaborators at the Center for Brain, Gene, and Behavioral Research Across Development located at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, as well as members of the Cognitive Development and Neuroimaging Lab (KMT) and the Human Developmental Psychobiology Lab (MRG) for assistance with participant recruitment, scheduling, and testing. The authors have no conflicts of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd


  • Adolescence
  • Early life stress
  • International adoption
  • Risk-taking
  • Structural brain imaging


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