‘Loss aversion’ studies point the way for gambling addicts

Financial market traders and keen gamblers take note. Scientists have found that a chemical in the region of the brain involved in sensory and reward systems is crucial to whether people simply brush off the pain of financial losses.

Scientists say the study points the way to the possible development of drugs to treat problem gamblers and sheds light on what may have been going on in the brains of Wall Street and City of London traders as the 2008 financial crisis took hold.

“Pathological gambling that happens at regular casinos is bad enough, but I think it’s also happening a lot now at Casino Wall Street and Casino City of London,” said Julio Licinio, editor of the Molecular Psychiatry journal, which reviewed and published the brain study on Tuesday.

“We like to believe we all have free will and make whatever decisions we want to, but this shows it’s not so easy,” he said in a telephone interview. “Many people have a predisposure to make certain kinds of decisions.”

For the study, a team of researchers led by Hidehiko Takahashi of the Kyoto University graduate school of medicine in Japan, scanned the brains of 19 healthy men with positron emission tomography scans after they had completed a gambling task.


‘Loss aversion’
The experiment showed that a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, called norepinephrine, or noradrenaline, is central to the response to losing money.

Those with low levels of norepinephrine transporters had higher levels of the chemical in a crucial part of their brain — leading them to be less aroused by and less sensitive to the pain of losing money, the researchers found.

People with higher levels of transporters and therefore lower levels of norepinephrine or noradrenaline have what is known as “loss aversion”, where they have a more pronounced emotional response to losses compared to gains.

Loss aversion can vary widely between people, the researchers explained. While most people would only enter a two outcome gamble if it were possible to win more than they could lose, people with impaired decision making show reduced sensitivity to financial loss.

“This research uses sophisticated brain scanning to improve our understanding of the way that our appetite for risk is linked to the way that chemical messengers operate in the brain,” said Derek Hill, a professor of medical imaging science at University College London who was not involved in the research but intrigued by its findings.

“It is quite preliminary work, but has many intriguing implications,” he said, adding this sort of imaging could in future be used to help test drugs to treat people who indulge excessively in risky behaviour.

Alexis Bailey, a lecturer in neuropharmacology at Britain’s University of Surrey, said scientists now need to analyse known pathological gamblers to confirm whether they have higher levels of these brain chemical transporters than non-gamblers.

“Also there is a need to investigate if noradrenaline transporters are also increased in brain regions traditionally associated with decision making and emotional aspects of aversion such as the prefrontal cortex and amygdala,” he said. — Reuters

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Scientists map African genetics to learn more about diseases

Gene sequencing tools allows scientists to untangle the genetic roots of many diseases and they're looking at genetic variation in Africa.

Large dengue fever outbreak in Madeira spreads cases in Europe

Europe is experiencing its first sustained transmission of dengue fever since the 1920s, with more than 1 300 people infected in Madeira, Portugal.

New Sars-like virus found in Middle East

A Qatari man struck down with a previously unknown virus related to the deadly Sars infection is critically ill in hospital in Britain.

Compete to the beat: Tunes take athletes to the top

Science shows music has a profound effect on an athlete before and during a major sports event.

Cancer: Africa’s nameless enemy

Most of Africa's languages don't have a word for cancer. How can a continent hope to treat, let alone fight, a disease that has no name?

Autistic children encouraged to mentally ‘talk things through’

British scientists say teaching autistic children to "talk things through" in their heads might help them solve tricky day-to-day tasks.
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday