A chemical in the brain that triggers emotional reward systems may make some people less sensitive to financial loss and therefore more prone to making impaired decisions or placing risky bets, scientists revealed in a paper published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal on February 21, reported Medical Daily.
The findings could potentially lead to the development of medications to treat uncontrolled gamblers, said the researchers from the Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan.
“We like to believe we all have free will and make whatever decisions we want to, but this shows it’s not so easy,” Julio Licinio, editor of the Molecular Psychiatry journal, told Reuters. “Many people have a predisposure to make certain kinds of decisions.”
Researchers conducted positron emission tomography (PET) scans on the brains of 19 healthy men after they had completed a gambling task.
Study results showed that a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine is vital to one’s response to losing money. Men with low levels of transporters for norepinephrine had higher levels of the chemical in a crucial part of their brain. The high norepinephrine concentration in this particular area reduces their aversion to financial loss, the researchers found. Thus, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
People with higher levels of transporters and therefore lower levels of norepinephrine in this part of the brain experienced a stronger emotional response to financial losses compared to gains.
The next step, according to Alexis Bailey, a lecturer in neuropharmacology at Britain’s University of Surrey, is to analyze known pathological gamblers to measure their levels of norepinephrine compared to non-gamblers.