Shifts in reinforcement signalling while playing slot-machines as a function of prior experience and impulsivity

Abstract

Electronic gaming machines (EGMs) offer significant revenue streams for mercantile gambling. However, limited clinical and experimental evidence suggests that EGMs are associated with heightened risks of clinically problematic patterns of play. Little is known about the neural structures that might mediate the transition from exploratory EGM play to the ‘addictive’ play seen in problem gamblers; neither is it known how personality traits associated with gambling activity (and gambling problems) influence reinforcement processing while playing EGMs. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy participants, we show that a single episode of slot-machine play is subsequently associated with reduced amplitudes of blood-oxygenation-level-dependent signals within reinforcement-related structures, such as the ventral striatum and caudate nucleus, following winning game outcomes; but increased amplitudes of anticipatory signals within the ventral striatum and amygdala while watching the game reels spin. Trait impulsivity enhanced positive signals within the ventral striatum and amygdala following the delivery of winning outcomes but diminished positive signals following the experience of almost-winning ('near-misses'). These results indicate that a single episode of slot-machine play engages the well-characterised reinforcement-learning mechanisms mediated by ascending dopamine mesolimbic and mesostriatal pathways, to shift reward value of EGMs away from game outcomes towards anticipatory states. Impulsivity, itself linked to problem gambling and heightened vulnerability to other addictive disorders, is associated with divergent coding of winning outcomes and almost-winning experiences within the ventral striatum and amygdala, potentially enhancing the reward value of successful slot-machine game outcomes but, at the same time, modulating the aversive motivational consequences of near-miss outcomes.

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