Understanding the Neural Connection that Supports Gambling

Scientists are getting closer to understanding the risky decision making behind gambling. A new study shows that people who are more cautious when evaluating a big reward with bad odds have a stronger connection between two regions of their brain. These brain regions are involved in desires and feelings of reward.


Photo Credit: Zdenko Zivkovic, Flickr

The choice to gamble

For some people, gambling might seem more like a positive opportunity, whereas others might see more of the negative side of losing money. These feelings come from activity in two different regions of your brain.

The anterior insula is a region where social emotions spring from, and shows activity in brain scans when people experience empathy, decide not to buy something, or feel a craving for a drug. The other region is called the nucleus accumbens, which is recognized for its role in the reward circuit of the brain. It is an important area for associative learning processes, and it plays an important role in addicition.

Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology at Stanford, was interested in looking at how these regions worked together when it came to the decision to gamble or not.  Are the brain regions physically connected, or do they influence areas of the brain independent from one another?

The researchers set up an experiment with participants where they were given $10 to gamble, or not, in a series of games with different odds and pay-offs. The odds were told to participants for each of the games, and they could keep any money they had left at the end. As they made their decisions, their brains were scanned.

Evidence for controlling the balance

The Stanford team used a technique called diffusion-weighted MRI that can identify tracts of neurons that connect brain regions, and it measures the strength of the connections by how insulated they are. The insulation comes from fatty tissue covering the neurons.

What they found was that there was indeed a tract of neurons connecting the anterior insula and the nucleus accumbens, and this is first time it has been verified in humans.

Interestingly, they found that a stronger connection (thicker insulation) corresponded with more cautious gambling behavior. They visualized the activity in each brain region during the gambling and could see when participants were going to make a more risky bet based on activity in the rewards region. But what the study suggested is that the cautious region of the brain tended to lessen the activity in the enthusiastic region when a stronger neuronal connection was present.

Using the science of gambling

The researchers hope to use this information towards helping those with gambling problems or other addictions.

“Now we can start asking interesting questions about impulse control and gambling,” Knutson said. “For example, does the connection change over the course of therapy?”

Knutson is part of something called the NeuroChoice initiative of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, where they have a goal of better understanding decision-making processes so they can apply it in the real world to improving public policy, law, business, and education.

The next step would be to learn what can be done to improve the neuronal connection between the anterior insula and the nucleus accumbens.

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