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Researchers Identify Brain Area Tied to Problem Gambling

Turns out those who suffer injuries in the insula cortex, which controls consciousness and motor control, are more rational about gambling outcomes, even compared to those with healthy brains.

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By Victoria Kim

04/10/14

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A new study has unlocked a key finding in understanding the psychology of problem gambling. University of Cambridge researchers observed people with various brain injuries - as well as those without brain injuries - play slot machine and roulette-style computer games.

“While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain’s response to complex events, it’s only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task,” said lead researcher Dr. Luke Clark.

There has been growing evidence that problem gamblers are particularly prone to erroneous thinking that push them to try their luck repeatedly, especially after near-misses, even though they are no different from any other loss - a phenomenon known as gambler’s fallacy.

Surprisingly, those who suffered injuries in the area most involved with decision-making and risk - the ventromedial prefrontal cortex - did not behave differently. But rather, it was those who suffered insula injuries who were the most rational of all the groups, including those with healthy brains. Everyone but the group with insula injuries reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in both games.

“A healthy brain is actually functioning incorrectly by thinking that they are more likely to have a tail after say, four heads,” Clark said. “The healthy group, and all the other brain injury groups apart from the insula group had that affect on the roulette table. Those with insula injuries were very rational in their answers,” he added.

The study, published April 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggested that the insula in problem gamblers could be hyperactive, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking, according to Clark. “Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies,” he added.

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