From gamblers playing blackjack to investors picking stocks, humans make a wide range of decisions that require gauging risk versus reward. However, laboratory studies have not been able to unequivocally determine how the very basic information-processing "subcortical" regions of the brain function in processing risk and reward.
Now, Steven Quartz and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology have created a simple gambling task that, when performed by humans undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains, distinguishes the "gambling" structures in the brain. Importantly, their findings tease apart the gambling function of these brain structures from their functions in learning, motivation, and assessment of the salience of a stimulus.
In their research article published in the August 3, 2006, issue of Neuron, published by Cell Press, the researchers said their findings and experimental method could help in understanding and perhaps treating aberrant risk-taking in disorders including gambling addiction, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia.
In their experiments, the researchers asked subjects to choose two cards from a deck numbered one to ten. Before their choice, however, the subjects were asked to bet $1 on whether the first or second card would be higher. The fMRI imaging of the subjects' brains during the gambling task could show the researchers which areas of the brain activated during different parts of the task. In fMRI, harmless radio signals and magnetic fields are used to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects activity in those regions.
The researchers concentrated their analysis on the "anticipatory period" between the display of the first and second card, since it was then that the subjects were able to judge from the number on the card the risk of whether they were likely to win or lose their bet that the second card would be higher or lower.