Researchers may have hit the jackpot by identifying the key area of the brain involved in gambling behaviors.

Using brain imaging, a new study has pinpointed specific areas of the brain that light up when people gamble or gauge risk vs. reward.

Researchers say the finding could help in the development of more effective treatments for problem gamblers, as well as other forms of addiction and mental disorders.

Gambling in the Brain

In the study, published in the journal Neuron, researchers at the California Institute of Technology used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity in 19 men and women while they performed a risk vs. reward task.

Gambling Addiction Resembles Brain Problem

In the experiment, the participants were asked to choose two cards from a deck numbered 1 to 10. But before their choice was made, researchers asked them to bet $1 on whether the first or second card would be higher.

Gamblers and Substance Abusers Share Traits

Researchers concentrated on analyzing brain activity involved in the anticipatory period between the showing of the first and second card. At that moment, the participants were able to judge from the number on the first card whether they were likely to win or lose their bet.

The results showed that researchers could distinguish between brain regions that responded specifically to either anticipated risk or reward. Activity in these regions also increased with the level of expected reward or perceived risk.

Problem Gambling Can Lead to Bad Health

In addition, the study showed that while brain activation related to expected reward was immediate, the activation of the areas related to risk perception was delayed.

The regions activated were part of the brain’s circuitry controlled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is also involved in learning and motivation.

Brain Regions Blamed for Bad Investments

Researchers say the results of their study are significant because the design of their gambling task ruled out possible involvement of these other functions, which may lead to better treatments for gambling addiction as well as other mental disorders that involve risk-taking behaviors, including a manic episode in someone with bipolar disorder.

Visit WebMD's Health Center

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Dr. Louise Chang

SOURCES: Preuschoff, K. Neuron, Aug. 3, 2006; vol 51: pp 381-390. News release, Cell Press.