Calling the slots: A study on risky choices in gambling


We make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis, many involving a choice between two or more alternatives. These decisions are often complicated when they are infused with an element of uncertainty, and not all outcomes of our potential choices are fully known. Over time, our brains have evolved various mechanisms that help us assess uncertain alternatives and make decisions that are informed by weighing risk versus payoff in a beneficial manner. However, when these mechanisms go awry, it is possible for our decisions to become increasingly irrational and risky, as is often observed in the case of patients suffering from Problem Gambling (also known as gambling disorder). Past research with humans has shown that visual cues in our environment can play a role in affecting our preferences for risky or safe alternatives by priming past memories. Other studies have implicated specific brain regions such as the Anterior Insular cortex (AIC) and the Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in the process of evaluating risk. In the present study, we report that, like humans, rats appear to indicate sensitivity to priming cues, becoming more risky following exposure to cues that are associated with past wins, and less risky following exposure to cues that are associated with past losses. We also report that optogenetic inhibition of the AIC seems to either increase or decrease risk preference, depending on when during the task said inhibition is administered. Inhibition of the OFC, on the other hand, returned inconclusive results. These observations contribute to the literature on risky decision-making by investigating the effects of environmental cues on risky choices, and by building upon our knowledge of the neural mechanisms behind the process.

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