W A S H I N G T O N, May 25, 2001 -- The brains of people anticipating a win at the roulette table appear to react much like those taking euphoria-inducing drugs.
A team of investigators reports in Thursday's issue of thejournal Neuron that the parts of the brain that respond to theprospects of winning and losing money while gambling are the sameas those that appear to respond to cocaine and morphine.
The overlap of brain activity seen in the gambling experimentwith that found in earlier studies of drug use indicates, theresearchers said, that the brain uses the same circuitry for "theprocessing of diverse rewards."
"The results of our gaming experiment, coupled with findingsfrom prior studies of the anticipation and experience of positiveand negative outcomes in humans and laboratory animals, suggestthat a network of interrelated structures ... coordinate theprocessing of goal-related stimuli," the team led by Dr. Hans C.Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital said.
Next Challenge: Mapping the Neural Pathways
A challenge for the future, he said, is to determine howdifferent parts of these brain circuits affect the thinking,emotion and motivation involved in anticipation, evaluation, anddecision-making.
"Identifying these regions of the brain and mapping the neuralpathways that process the anticipation and 'rewards' associatedwith drug abuse would be a tremendous boost to the development ofmedications or interventions that could block these circuits andprovide other treatment approaches," said Dr. Alan I. Leshner,director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The research wassupported by NIDA, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
The research team led by Breiter used magnetic resonance imagingto map the brain responses of 12 men while they participated in agame of chance involving winning or losing money.
They found that in the gambling experiment, blood flow to thebrain changed in ways similar to that seen in other experimentsduring an infusion of cocaine in subjects addicted to that drug andto low doses of morphine in drug-free individuals.
The changes varied in accordance with the amount of moneyinvolved, and a broadly distributed set of brain regions wereinvolved in anticipating a win. The more money involved, the moreexcited the person became.
The primary response to winning, or the prospect of winning, wasseen in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the lefthemisphere was more active in response to losing, the researchersreported.
Besides Breiter, the research team included Peter Shizgal ofConcordia University in Montreal, Daniel Kahneman of PrincetonUniversity and Anders Dale and Itzhak Aharon, both of MassachusettsGeneral Hospital.