Dollar signs switch on brain

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  • Published: Sep 1, 2010
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Dollar signs switch on brain

Functional magnetic resonance imaging has revealed a region of the brain about two inches above the left eyebrow that lights up whenever a person anticipating a reward for a task performed successfully is shown a dollar sign. The response is linked to dopamine release in response to pre-determined cues of which a symbol for money is one.

If there's money on the table, there's usually someone finding a way to win it, whether they're gamblers, card sharps, or merchant bankers. Now, psychology researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, are raising eyebrows having turned to functional MRI to help them uncover the inner workings of an intriguing part of the brain involved in reward. Their findings might help explain how money players manage to keep their head and a poker face when risk and reward are the game.

The findings suggest that a specific part of the brain about two inches above the left eyebrow helps people use the prospect of reward and success to better prepare their thoughts and actions prior to making gambling or gaming decisions so increasing the odds that they will have a steady hand and be the winner.

Writing in the August issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, Adam Savine and colleagues have identified the brain region that seemingly springs into action when a prospect of a financial reward appears, or rather whenever study participants were shown a dollar sign, which is obviously a predetermined cue for money and used in the test to indicate a financial reward for a correct answer or successful completion of a task

This region uses, what the researchers think is a short burst of dopamine to coordinate interactions between the brain's cognitive control and motivation networks and so prime the brain for an imminent "show me the money" situation. "The surprising thing we see is that motivation acts in a preparatory manner," explains Savine, who is lead author of the research study and a graduate student at WUSTL. "This region gears up when the money cue is on."

Savine is working under Todd Braver, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and in their experiment, they tested sixteen subjects appropriately prepared for one of two possible tasks based on advance information provided at the same time as the money cue. Monetary rewards were offered on trials in which the money cue appeared (which happened randomly on half the trials), provided that the subjects answered accurately and within a specified time. To get the reward, the subjects had to use the advance task information most effectively.

fMRI revealed, as increased levels of oxygenated haemoglobin in the brain blood flow, regions a network of eight different brain regions that responded to the multitasking challenge and two that responded to both the challenge and the motivational cue (a dollar sign, the monetary reward cue for a swift, correct answer). Specifically, Savine and Braver found that the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) crucially both predicts a win, or successful outcome, and prepares the motivational cognitive control network to win again. Simply flashing the dollar-sign sparked immediate activation of the DLPFC, triggering it to interact with other cognitive control and motivational functions in the brain, alerting them to an imminent money-grabbing challenge. One question that remains to answered is how the two brain networks interact.

"In this region (left DLPFC), you can actually see the unique neural signature of the brain activity related to the reward outcome," Savine explains. "It predicts a reward outcome and it's preparatory, in an integrative sort of way. The left DLPFC is the only region we found that seems to be primarily engaged when subjects get the motivational cue beforehand, it's the region integrates that information with the task information and leads to the best task performance."

The work provides new insights into the way people pursue goals and how motivation drives goal-oriented behaviour. It also could provide clues to what might be happening with different populations of people with cognitive deficiencies in pursuing goals.

"We wanted to see what motivates us to pursue one goal in the world above all others," Savine says. "You might think that these mechanisms would have been addressed a long time ago in psychology and neuroscience, but it's not been until the advent of fMRI that we've had the tools to address this question in humans, and any progress in this area has been very, very recent."



The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.




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