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Nearly winning is more rewarding in pathological gamblers

Pathological gamblers have a stronger brain reaction to so-called near-miss events: losing events that come very close to a win. Neuroscientists of the Donders Institute at Radboud University show this in fMRI scans of twenty-two pathological gamblers and just as many healthy controls. The scientific journal Neuropsychopharmacology published their results in an early view article.

Despite being objective losses, near-misses activate a particular reward-related area in the middle of our brain: the striatum. In the current study, neuroscientist Guillaume Sescousse and his colleagues show that this activity is amplified in pathological gamblers. When compared to healthy controls, pathological gamblers show more activity in the striatum after a near-miss event, than after a complete-miss event (see Figure). This activity is thought to reinforce gambling behaviour, supposedly by fostering an illusion of control on the game.

Example of a near-miss event (above) and a complete-miss event (below) in a slot machine
Example of a near-miss event (above) and a complete-miss event (below) in a slot machine
Image: Radboud University