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Scientists Unveil Brain Part Tied to Gambling Addiction

Update Date: Apr 07, 2014 03:02 PM EDT

Addictions are rooted deep into one's brain chemistry. In order to treat people with addictions, such as a gambling addiction, researchers need to closely examine how the brain works in gamblrs. In a new study, researchers found that when one particular part of the brain known as the insula was damaged, it can affect the brain's thinking process, which was then tied to a gambling addiction.

For this study, the research team headed by Dr. Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge set out to examine why gamblers tend to misperceive their own chances of winning. The researchers explained that gamblers tend to see "near-misses" as encouragement to continue playing. Gamblers have also been known to assume that if they lost in the first round, their chances of winning is better in the subsequent rounds even though in each round, the chances of winning or losing remain constant. This belief is known as gambler's fallacy.

The team analyzed gamblers who had previous brain injuries to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala or the insula. The gamblers were given two different gambling games to play, which were a slot machine and a roulette game. The slot machine gave the gamblers the 'near-miss' situation in which they would almost win the jackpot if one particular piece showed up as opposed to the other. The roulette game, which involved red or black possible wins, helped the researchers test gambler's fallacy. The team found that damage to the all brain regions except the insula seemed to encourage the gamblers to continue in both situations.

"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 Dr. Clark. "Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking. Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies."

The study was published in PNAS.

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