Addicted to the Action

Addictive behavior might improve with inhibition training

(RxWiki News) The brain is more likely to act impulsively while trying to multitask. Inhibiting motor actions forces a person to concentrate only on one task and potentially make a better decision.

New research suggests that inhibiting the action of betting while gambling can make someone who is gambling less likely to place a risky bet. Research tested this theory on healthy subjects, not gambling addicts.

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Frederick Verbruggen, PhD, psychology professor from the University of Exeter in England and Christopher Chambers, PhD, psychology professor from Cardiff University in England, teamed up to research the link between impulsive behavior and motor control.

Researchers specifically wanted to know if restricting physical movements would affect risky vs. cautious behavior while gambling. The theory behind this experiment is based on how the brain is mapped out to control different behaviors.

According to the study: “Less supervision by the executive system [brain section] after disruption of the right prefrontal cortex leads to increased risk taking in gambling because superficially attractive—but risky—choices are not suppressed.”

That is, when the brain is distracted by movement, rather than focused on the task at hand, it is more likely to allow risky behavior.

“Similarly, people might gamble more in multitask situations than in single task situations because concurrent executive processes usually interfere with each other.”

Impulsive behavior is harder to control when the brain is busy managing a bunch of things at once.

Verbruggen and Chambers tried three different experiments on healthy college students to test their theories. Subjects interacted with a computer to simulate the gambling.

For the first experiment, the subjects were placed in a gambling situation and asked to bet on either the safe or risky option, multiple times. The safe option presented good odds, but with a low gain. The risky option presented slim odds, but with a high gain.

The computer simulated gambling game gave a ‘stop’ signal right as the subject was placing a bet to inhibit their decision. The signal would stop the participant from pressing any buttons on the keyboard and therefore reduce their physical movement. This ‘stop’ signal was used to keep subjects focused on the thought process of gambling instead of switching gears to engage their motor skills.

Results of the first experiment showed that when participants were given the ‘stop’ signal they were more likely to proceed with caution and bet more conservatively when the game resumed.

The next two experiments focused on the duration and results of inhibition training. The end results proved that a short bit of inhibition training could reduce gambling by 10-15 percent, and this effect could last for around two hours.

Verbruggen states: “Our research shows that by training themselves to stop simple hand movements, people can also learn to control their decision-making processes to avoid placing risky bets.”

“This work could have important practical implications for the treatment of behavioral addictions, such as pathological gambling, which have previously been associated with impaired impulse control, and more specifically, deficits in stopping actions.”

“We are now exploring the relevance of our findings to other addictions, such as smoking or overeating, which we did not look at in this study. Addictions are very complex and individual, and our approach would only target one aspect of the problem. However, we are very excited about the potential of helping a proportion of people whose lives are affected by gambling and other addictions.”

Chambers adds: “These results suggest that our impulses are controlled by highly connected brain systems, reaching from the most basic motor actions to more complicated risky decisions.”

“Our study shows that inhibition training reduces risk-taking during gambling in healthy volunteers but it does not show that inhibition training reduces gambling addiction. More studies are now needed to discover whether training people to boost a low-level ‘inhibitory muscle’ could help treat addictions, but these initial findings are promising.”

The authors hope that these experiments will lay the foundation for future therapies for gambling addicts. “Our findings indicate that proactive motor control strongly affects monetary risk taking in gambling. The link between control systems at different cognitive levels might be exploited to develop new methods for rehabilitation of addiction and impulse-control disorders.”

This study was published in the journal Psychological Science, June 2012. Funding for the study was provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Research Foundation Flanders and the Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, no conflicts of interest were found.

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Review Date: 
June 20, 2012