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According to gambling industry consultant company H2 Gambling Capital, Americans lose nearly $120 billion a year to games of chance. Trying to understand why people put themselves into risky situations, like gambling after losing thousands of dollars, has stumped people for centuries. However, scientists point to one fact that accounts for such risks – human behavior is inherently variable. Even when faced with the same task repeatedly, humans often act in erratic and inconsistent ways, as do our brain fluctuations.
Now, thanks to new neuroscience findings from the University College London (UCL) Queen Square Institute of Neurology in England, we’re closer than ever to understanding why. The University’s ongoing research is helping to explain the biology behind risky behaviors — studies that may one day lead to new interventions for gambling addiction.
This particular study from the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology found that minute-to-minute fluctuations in human brain activity, linked to changing levels of dopamine, impact whether or not we make risky decisions. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study indicates human behavioral variability may not be random, but instead linked to internal brain states.
The majority of functional neuroscience studies so far have focused on the brain’s response to a task or stimulus. However, the brain is active with strong fluctuations in activity even in the absence of explicit input or output. Because of this, researchers focused on people who were in a state of rest – awake but not doing anything. When a person is at rest, their brain is not occupied with anything in particular, but it remains alert and active.
Co-lead author of the study, Dr. Tobias Hauser of UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, said: “Experts have long struggled to explain why people are so erratic, making one decision one day and the opposite decision another day. We know that the brain is constantly active, even when we aren’t doing anything, so we wondered if this background activity affects our decision-making.”
The UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology researchers studied activity in the dopaminergic midbrain brain region, which contains the highest amount of dopaminergic neurons. These are the brain cells that release dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical messenger that helps regulate self-motivation-related behaviors.
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For the study, researchers recruited 43 healthy young adults to partake in the research. Each participant completed a set of experimental gambling tasks while laying down in an MRI scanner so researchers could observe brain activity. They were asked to simply choose between a safe option of gaining a small amount of money and a risky option of gaining a larger amount of money. If they chose the risky option and lost, they would receive nothing.
However, it’s important to note that researchers only asked the participants to make a choice when their brains showed either a spike in activity in the dopaminergic midbrain or when activity in that area showed a sharp decline. When the dopaminergic midbrain was in a state of low activity before participants were asked to make the decision, they were more likely to choose the risky option than when their brains were in a state of high activity.
The study outcomes suggest that these natural fluctuations in resting brain activity appear to have similar effects to other factors that influence risk-taking behaviors, such as drugs and age.
Our brains may have evolved to have spontaneous fluctuations in a key brain area for decision making because it makes us more unpredictable and better able to cope with a changing world.
The study illustrates the importance of not rushing into decisions. Co-lead author Benjamin Chew, a doctoral candidate at the institute, said the findings stress not making split or rash decisions due to the inherent invariability of human behavior: “Our findings underscore the importance of taking time when making important decisions, as you might make a different decision if you just wait a few minutes.”
Moving forward, researchers want to better understand how these natural fluctuations in resting brain activity influence decision making on a daily basis. They also want to assess whether the variations could be related to other behavioral disorders and potentially help devise better treatments for conditions such as compulsive gambling.
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