Those people with an addiction to cocaine are more likely to engage in riskier behavior after suffering a loss than their sober counterparts, according to a new study sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Researchers from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the University of California, San Diego say the elevated sensitivity to loss in people who use cocaine is directly connected to a significant reduction in that portion of the brain that amplifies the reward process.
These findings, which were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, suggest that a person’s mentality in the grips of cocaine can push he or she to take greater risks in order to break even—despite the potential for more loss.
“This paradoxical relationship between how someone acts in response to a loss can give us clues for how to develop better interventions and how to track the recovery of the brain from cocaine addiction,” said Joshua Gowin, one of the lead study authors.
To come to this conclusion, researchers watched as nearly 30 cocaine addicts and 40 healthy participants engaged in a gambling task that provided them with an opportunity to earn money. Researchers found that as the potential reward became greater, the healthy participants displayed increased activity in that part of the brain (ventral striatum) that handles risk and decision-making. However, the cocaine addicts did not experience like results.
According to the study authors, the outcome of this experiment shows that riskier behavior in cocaine addicts is not stimulated by reward.
“In an interesting parallel to their real life behavior, brain activity and choice behavior during a gambling task used in this study indicate an aberrant sensitivity to loss and a tendency to double down and make risky choices,” said Cameron Carter, editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. The two groups made risky decisions at a similar frequency overall, but the effect was only observed after participants had lost a gamble in a previous round.
Overall, the study finds that both groups of respondents took similar risks at first, but it wasn’t until the cocaine addicts missed out on a win that their lust for more risk began to shift dramatically.
Researchers say the study shows a direct correlation between substance abuse and the ability to process risk.
Yet, the study authors acknowledge that additional research is necessary before these findings become clear.
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