Study sheds light on the science behind risky gambling behaviour

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University have published a study into brain activity during risky decision making. The researchers identified suppression of one region of the brain, the supplementary eye field (SEF), can reduce risky gambling decisions by up to 40%.

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Suppressing certain parts of the brain could reduce the likelihood of risky gambling. © Pexels.

The study, published in the Current Biology journal, measured the brain activity of monkeys, who were trained to gamble against a computer.

The monkeys had two options. The first had a 20% chance of receiving 10 milliliters of water, while the second had an 80% chance of receiving three milliliters. The researchers found that the monkeys almost always favoured the more risky option, despite often not being thirsty.

However, the researchers found that they could significantly lower the amount of times the monkeys chose the riskier option. The SEF is located in the medial frontal cortex (MFC), which is known to play an essential role in decision making, especially decisions made under risk. By cooling – and thereby deactivating – the SEF, the monkeys began to choose the less risky option 30 to 40% more often.

Neuro-scientists were already aware that the SEF plays some role in decision making, but the significance it holds was still surprising.

Are there implications for problem-gambling treatment?

While neuro-science is not yet fully up to speed with the brain’s risk taking decision network, these findings could eventually lead to methods being developed that can intervene in cases of problem or compulsive gambling, as co-author of the study, Veit Stuphorn explains:

We do not understand the risk-taking network in the brain well enough to think about therapeutic implications. But as our understanding increases, there is hope for better behavioral interventions based on a better understanding of the factors that drive risky decisions. And in the long run possibly direct interventions in the form of brain stimulation.Veit Stuphorn, Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins

Another recent study, also published in the same journal, found that gamblers’ brain activity focuses much more intensely on regret over past bets than previously thought. Those findings could help in the identification of those at risk of problem gambling, as those that don’t feel regret would be bordering on anti-social or addictive behaviour.

While it’s likely a long way off, both studies are paving the way to potential intervention treatments for problem gambling.

You can read the study in full online.

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