Age-related variability in decision-making: Insights from neurochemistry

  • Anne S. BerryEmail author
  • William J. Jagust
  • Ming Hsu


Despite dopamine’s significant role in models of value-based decision-making and findings demonstrating loss of dopamine function in aging, evidence of systematic changes in decision-making over the life span remains elusive. Previous studies attempting to resolve the neural basis of age-related alteration in decision-making have typically focused on physical age, which can be a poor proxy for age-related effects on neural systems. There is growing appreciation that aging has heterogeneous effects on distinct components of the dopamine system within subject in addition to substantial variability between subjects. We propose that some of the conflicting findings in age-related effects on decision-making may be reconciled if we can observe the underlying dopamine components within individuals. This can be achieved by incorporating in vivo imaging techniques including positron emission tomography (PET) and neuromelanin-sensitive MR. Further, we discuss how affective factors may contribute to individual differences in decision-making performance among older adults. Specifically, we propose that age-related shifts in affective attention (“positivity effect”) can, in some cases, counteract the impact of altered dopamine function on specific decision-making processes, contributing to variability in findings. In an effort to provide clarity to the field and advance productive hypothesis testing, we propose ways in which in vivo dopamine imaging can be leveraged to disambiguate dopaminergic influences on decision-making, and suggest strategies for assessing individual differences in the contribution of affective attentional focus.


decision-making dopamine aging positivity effect PET 



We thank Ben Inglis, Joseph R. Winer, and Anne Maass for their work developing the neuromelanin-sensitive MR Protocol. Neuromelanin-sensitive MR data were collected at the Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center. This work was supported by National Institute on Aging Grants K99 AG058748 (A.S.B.) and R01 AG044292 (W.J.J.), National Science Foundation award BSC-0821855, and the Alzheimer’s Association Research Fellowship (A.S.B.).


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Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Helen Wills Neuroscience InstituteUniversity of California BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Haas School of BusinessUniversity of California BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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