Brain neuronal activity linked with risk taking

Researchers believe that the brain’s prefrontal cortex activity could be the reason why some people are risk seeking and some are risk averse. It is hoped that this discovery could lead to effective treatment for gambling addiction.

Model of the brain

Researchers are making progress into what makes people take risks gambling. © Pexels.

Scientists have revealed that by observing neuronal activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, it is possible to predict a risky or safe decision. In rats, they found if neuronal activity is low, a rat will take a risk at the next opportunity. By comparison, if neuronal activity rises dramatically, then the rat will choose the safe option.

Two scientists have discovered that the neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex can be used to predict if a subject will make risky or safe decisions. When they monitored a subject they discovered that if there was low neuronal activity there was a greater chance of the subject choosing a safe option. When high levels of neuronal activity were observed the subject chose the safe option.

In clinical trials, the researchers offered the rats two possible choices: The safe option, which always gave the rat a small amount of food or the risky option, which could either contain an amount of food that was four-times the safe option or alternatively have no food at all.

The trial found that the rats would adapt their behaviour and use a strategy to strike a balance between risk and reward. A rat would, for example, choose the safe option after several unsuccessful risky choices, even if that strategy had been successful in the past.

The researchers found that by monitoring the levels of neuronal activity in the rats’ prefrontal cortex, they were able to always predict the rats’ behaviour, knowing with certainty due to these levels, whether the rat would choose the safe or risky option.

Whilst this is interesting in itself, the team went a stage further and found that by increasing or reducing this level artificially, they could influence the subject’s choices. One of the authors of the report, Johannes Passecker, explained how it worked. He said:

Through selective manipulation of the brain activity, we were even able to influence the decisions of the animals such that they took a higher risk with their gambles. Johannes Passecker, Research scientist

The team used light to control cells in living organisms in a process that is called Optogenetics and using lasers they are able to activate proteins in the prefrontal cortex of the rats’ brains which increases or decreases the activity.

Renewed hope for gambling addiction understanding and treatment

News of this research has given renewed hope for the future treatment of illnesses such as gambling addiction and depression. Dr Passecker explained that it made logical sense for levels of activity in the brain to directly affect our moods and decision making.

He explained that when a person suffers from a gambling addiction, the neuron activity in the prefrontal cortex is also very low, which means a person is no longer capable of correctly assessing the risk of massive gambling losses. He explains that the addiction stops the brain being able to choose the safe option.

Further studies will be required. However, if the results of this study in rats are successfully replicated for humans, it could bring a new era in the treatment of mental illness and give hope to problem gamblers and PTSD suffers.

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