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Has Science Found A Cure For Gambling Addiction?

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2024-01-08

Has Science Found A Cure For Gambling Addiction?

Has Science Found A Cure For Gambling Addiction?

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Recent research conducted by a team of scientists at Kyoto University in Japan has shed light on the neural roots of gambling addiction. By implanting chips into the brains of macaque monkeys, the researchers were able to manipulate specific brain regions and observe changes in risk-taking behaviour.

Japanese macaques, the subjects of this research, have been found to be natural risk-takers. In a video game task, they consistently opt for high-risk, high-reward scenarios. This inherent inclination towards risk-taking behaviour makes them ideal subjects for studying the neural underpinnings of gambling addiction.

The researchers began their investigation by training the macaque monkeys to look at different coloured spots on a screen to receive a water reward. Some spots offered a small reward 90 percent of the time, while others presented a larger reward but with only a 10 percent chance of payout. Despite the lower probability of success, the monkeys consistently chose the high-risk, high-reward spots, mirroring the behaviour of human gamblers.

To identify the specific brain regions responsible for this risk-reward calculation, the researchers selectively activated different parts of the monkey’s frontal lobe. They discovered that activating one particular region encouraged the monkeys to pursue larger rewards with a lower likelihood of success. On the other hand, activating another region led the monkeys to settle for smaller, more certain rewards. This finding suggests that different parts of the frontal lobe play distinct roles in decision-making processes.

Further investigation revealed that the crucial brain region involved in risk-reward calculations is Brodmann area 6, a part of the frontal lobe associated with planning complex movements. In humans, the frontal lobe is responsible for personality, planning, organizing, and goal-oriented behaviour. The macaque frontal lobe is believed to play a similar role in the animal’s behaviour, as suggested by past research.

In their study, the researchers aimed to determine whether targeting Brodmann area 6 could modulate the monkeys’ gambling tendencies. Through local gene editing, they made the neurons in this brain region light-sensitive, enabling them to activate the neurons using red light. An electrode array was implanted over the modified brain region, allowing the researchers to both record electrical activity and stimulate the neurons with red light.

To evaluate the impact of manipulating Brodmann area 6 on gambling behaviour, the monkeys were introduced to a new video game that simulated the risk-reward scenarios from the initial training. The game presented the monkeys with a choice between a safe path, offering a single banana, and a dangerous path, promising a whole bunch of bananas. By controlling their gaze on the screen, the monkeys could navigate through the game.

When the bottom part of Brodmann area 6 was illuminated and activated, the monkeys exhibited a heightened inclination towards risk, frequently choosing the dangerous path with the potential for a greater reward. Conversely, when the top part of the same brain region was activated, the monkeys became more cautious, consistently opting for the safer path with a smaller payoff. This push-pull mechanism within Brodmann area 6 demonstrates its role in regulating risk-taking behaviour.

The researchers also explored the involvement of dopamine, a chemical messenger associated with reward and positive feelings, in the risk-reward balance. Neurons extending from Brodmann area 6 carry dopamine to the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a region linked to addictive behaviours in humans. Intriguingly, cell staining of the monkeys’ brains revealed that the majority of light-sensitive neurons were dopamine-producing neurons.

These findings suggest that dopamine plays a significant role in modulating risk and reward. The delicate balance of dopamine activity in the brain may contribute to the development of gambling addiction. This connection between dopamine and addictive behaviours is further supported by the observation that the Parkinson’s disease drug pramipexole, which promotes dopamine release, has been associated with an increased risk of gambling disorders.

The study’s results indicate that different parts of Brodmann area 6 might encode risk-return computations in distinct ways. The interconnectedness and competition between these neighbouring brain regions contribute to the regulation of risk attitudes. Future research is necessary to ascertain whether these findings are applicable to individuals with gambling addictions. However, the study provides a promising foundation for understanding the neural mechanisms underlying gambling disorders in humans.

Understanding the neural roots of gambling addiction opens up opportunities for the development of effective intervention strategies. By targeting the specific brain regions involved in risk-reward computations, it may be possible to modulate an individual’s risk-taking behaviour. Further research could explore non-invasive methods such as transcranial magnetic stimulation or neurofeedback to influence these brain regions without invasive procedures.

 




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