Losing money activates the same area of the brain involved in responding to fear and pain, and the new information may help give insight on why some people become problem gamblers, according a study in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Twenty-four people had their brain activity monitored by MRI to look for subtle changes as they gambled. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust center for Neuroimaging at University College London found the patients were accurately learning to predict when there was a chance of winning or losing money.
This ability to be guided by a "prediction error," where the brain learns to make judgments based on previous mistakes, appears to be a separate response when the prediction results in a financial loss rather than financial gain, according to the researchers. The brain reactions were similar to systems previously identified in rats, which suggests they hijacked an evolutionarily older system connected to avoiding fear and pain.
"This provides a sort of biological justification for the popular concept of 'financial pain'," lead investigator Dr. Ben Seymour said.
Understanding how the brain systems for learning to predict financial losses and gains interact may provide important insights into why some people gamble more than others, and why some people become addicted to it, Seymour said in the article.
"Clearly, none of us wants to lose money in the same way that none of us wants to experience pain," said Seymour. "It would make sense that the way we learn to predict and hence avoid both of them should be linked."
The Wellcome Trust, the world's second-largest medical research charity, awards 500 million pounds (US$999 million) to support scientists it deems to have the best ideas each year.