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Ask traders on the chaotic floor of commodities exchanges, horse players lined up at the windows at the track, or senior citizens feeding one-arm bandits at a casino. Why do it? Many of them offer the same explanation for taking financial risk -- "It's like a drug."
Apparently, the prospect of winning money is just that. A study headed by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston shows that specific regions of the brain respond to the anticipation and reward of money. "This is the first demonstration that a monetary reward produces brain activation very similar to that observed in an addict," says Hans Breiter, who headed the study. He is co-director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Center at Massachusetts General's Radiology Dept. in Boston.
$50 STAKE. Indeed, the research confirms that the notion of gambling as addictive may be much more than an old saw. The circuits in the brain that respond are the same ones that show heightened activity when a cocaine addict takes a hit or low doses of morphine are given to drug-free individuals. "Mapping the neural pathways that process anticipation and 'rewards' could be a tremendous boost to the development of treatments," says Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which provided partial funding for the study.
In the the May 24 issue of the journal Neuron, Breiter and his colleagues report how they used powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map the responses in the brains of 12 subjects while they participated in a game of chance. Each participant was given a $50 stake and told that they might lose some or all of this stake, retain it, or increase it.
The tests were divided into two stages -- expectancy and outcome. During the expectancy phase, the subjects were shown how much money they could potentially win, depending on where the arrow stopped on a spinning disk. During the outcome phase, the arrow stopped on a designated monetary value on the disk, and the subjects found out whether they had won or lost money on that spin.
PEOPLE'S CHOICE. Of course, the whole concept of money -- and the idea that we might get more of it -- is unique to humans. And, the odds, it seems, are what count: The higher the odds, the bigger the risk -- and the greater the expectancy-phase high. The test results were consistent with results obtained in earlier experiments in which the reactions of people and research animals were noted as they anticipated a dose of a euphoria-inducing drug or food. "Our gaming experiment suggests that a network of structures coordinate the processing of goal-related stimuli," observes Breiter.
The new research does, however, reinforce the arguments of one of the co-authors, Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology at Princeton University. Kahneman was part of team that developed an idea called "prospect theory" in the late '70s. The theory, based on the notion that biases influence people's choices, has had a powerful impact on the field of behavioral economics. With the new data, Breiter speculates: "We can begin to dissect the systems that process reward and organize behavior in humans."
So if you get a little rush when you hear the song Money, Money, Money, that's just part of the game. But if you can't resist the lure of the game, you may be a gambling addict. Who knows, Wheel of Fortune may soon be using MRI to screen contestants. And at the end of it all, the researchers have only found a new way to look at an ancient and familiar human attribute: greed. By Alan Hall in New York