“Gambling Brain” Studies Make Clear Why It’s Hard to Stop Rolling the Dice

Neural regions underlying risk-taking and regret may one day point toward treatments for compulsive betting

More often than not a trip to Las Vegas is not a financially sound decision. And yet every year over 40 million people hand over their cash to the city’s many towering casinos, hoping the roulette ball rattles to a stop on black.

Gambling and other forms of risk-taking appear to be hardwired into our psyche. Humans at least as far back as Mesopotamia have rolled the dice, laying their barley, bronze and silver on the line, often against miserable odds. According to gambling industry consulting company H2 Gambling Capital, Americans alone lose nearly $120 billion a year to games of chance.

Now a set of neuroscience findings is closer than ever to figuring out why. Ongoing research is helping illuminate the biology of risky behaviors—studies that may one day lead to interventions for vices like compulsive gambling. The recent results show an explanation is more complex than looking at dysfunctional reward circuitry, the network of brain regions that fire in response to pleasing stimuli like sex and drugs. Risking loss on a slim chance of thrill or reward involves a complex dance of decision-making and emotion.

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