MRI Study Shines New Light on Gamblers’ Brains

You’ve been losing all night, and now another bad hand. So why raise?

That’s a question many people have about gambling addicts, who take excessive risks despite negative results.

Previous studies using functional MRI — fMRI, a method of looking at active areas of the brain — have shown that addicts have altered activity in brain regions related to risk and reward, making them prone to prefer risky choices.

Now a new study at Kyoto University in Japan has found another explanation: Addicts have a poor ability to assess and adapt to high-risk situations.

“We noticed that gambling addicts also have higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders,” said lead author Dr. Hidehiko Takahashi, adding, “pleasure may not be the main goal, but rather an inability to properly recognize risk and adapt accordingly.”

Takahashi notes that we all make decisions by evaluating the likelihood of success based on the level of tolerable risk. We then make adjustments based on prevailing circumstances, he continued.

“For example, if you are losing in the first half of a soccer match, you will likely prefer a strong defense while pushing your attackers forward,” he said. “However, if you are losing at the end of the second half, you may choose to forgo defense in favor of an all-out attack, because you would lose otherwise.”

Addicts, on the other hand, are inclined toward unnecessarily risky action, demonstrating a defect in risk assessment and adaptation, he said.

For the study, flexibility in risk-taking between addicts and non-addicts was determined through a series of gambling tasks, requiring participants to earn a certain amount of credits. Addicts were found to go with a risky strategy, even if that choice was sub-optimal, the study found.

“We observed diminished activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognitive flexibility,” Takahashi said. “This indicates that these subjects lack an ability to adapt their behavior to the risk level of the situation.”

The researchers say they hope their findings will contribute to a better understanding of the nature of gambling addiction, and eventually to the development of new methods of treatment.

The study was published in Translational Psychiatry.

Source: Kyoto University
Photo: Researchers at Kyoto University are using fMRI scans to find out why gambling addicts are prone to risk-taking. Credit: Kyoto University/Eiri Ono.