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Scientists Pinpoint Area of Brain That Fears Losing Money

Those with damaged amygdala had no aversions to risky gambles, study found

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers say they've pinpointed the area of the brain responsible for the fear of losing money, a finding that offers insight into human economic behavior.

The neuroscientists concluded that the human aversion to losing money is tied to the amygdala, a structure that registers rapid emotional reactions and plays a role in depression, anxiety and autism.

The study included two people with amygdala damage caused by a rare genetic disease and a control group of volunteers without amygdala damage. All the participants were asked if they were willing to accept a variety of gambles involving small amounts of money.

The two people with amygdala damage accepted risky gambles much more often than those in the control group and showed no aversion to money loss.

"Monetary-loss aversion has been studied in behavioral economics for some time, but this is the first time that patients have been reported who lack it entirely," study first author Benedetto de Martino, a University College, London, neuroscientist who is a visiting researcher at the California Institute of Technology, said in a news release from Caltech.

"We think this shows that the amygdala is critical for triggering a sense of caution toward making gambles in which you might lose," a function that may be similar to the amygdala's role in fear and anxiety, said Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech.

"Loss aversion has been observed in many economic studies, from monkeys trading tokens for food to people on high-stakes games shows, but this is the first clear evidence of a special brain structure that is responsible for fear of such losses," he added.

The study appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

Learn more about the amygdala from the Whalen Lab at Dartmouth University.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: California Institute of Technology, news release, Feb. 8, 2010

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