Why some of us gamble

If you are one of the hapless schlubs who bought a Powerball ticket or two and didn’t win (like me), modern neuroscience can tell you why (but not without a bit of pompous terminology). They call a small chance of winning large amounts — e.g. Powerball along with a large chance of losing a little a positively skewed gamble. Impressed? I’m not.

Nonetheless [ Neuron vol. 89 pp. 63 – 69 ’16 ] is a very interesting paper. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_magnetic_resonance_imaging) has shown that increased blood flow in one area of the brain (the nucleus accumbent sept) predicts risk seeking choices, while increased blood flow in another (the anterior insula) predicts aversion to risk. The unproven assumption behind fMRI is that increased blood flow is due to increased neural activity.

The neurochemistry of the two regions is quite different. The accumbens gets dopamine input while the insula gets norepinephrine projections.

BTW the insula is unique to man. Our cortex has grown so much (particularly in the frontal region) that it folds over on itself burying the insular cortex — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insular_cortex.

We are now actually able to measure axon bundles (white matter fiber tracts) in the living brain, using something called diffusion weighted MRI. By and large, fiber tracts tend to have the fibers parallel and running in the same direction. It is far easier for water to flow along parallel fibers than across them, and this is what the technique measures. For the mathematically inclined, what is actually measured is a tensor field, because at any given point in the brain it varies in direction, unlike a vector field which points just one way at a given point (the mathematically inclined know that this is a simplification because vectors are actually a type of tensor).

At any rate, the work used diffusion wieghted MRI to study the white matter tracts connecting the two areas. The larger the tract between insula and accumbens was the more risk averse an individual was. The implication being that a larger tract is a better connection between the two. So your nucleus is your impulsive child and the anterior insula is your mother telling you not to do anything crazy.

Fascinating, but like all this stuff it needs to be replicated, as it probably confirms the original idea for the study.

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