Gamblers tend to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, which is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’.

For instance, near-misses seem to encourage further play, although they are no different from any other loss. In a random sequence like tossing a coin, a run of one event (heads) makes them think the other outcome (tails) is due next.

To determine the neurobiological origins of these distortions, Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge and colleagues examined patients with injuries to different parts of the brain.

The researchers gave 31 patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the insula, two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that delivered wins and "near-misses," and a roulette game involving red or black predictions, to elicit the gambler's fallacy.

Thirteen patients with injuries to other parts of the brain, as well as 16 healthy participants, also played the simulated gambling games for comparison. All of the groups with the exception of the patients with insula damage reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game and also fell prey to the gambler's fallacy in the roulette game.

"Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking," Clark said.

The findings, published in US journal PNAS, suggested that the insula could be a future target in treatment on compulsive gambling.

"Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies," Clark added.


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