Science

Brain area tied to fear of losing money

Scientists in the U.S. and U.K. have identified a part of the human brain — the amygdala — that is responsible for our fear of losing money.

Scientists in the U.S. and U.K. have identified a part of the human brain — the amygdala — that is responsible for our fear of losing money.

Their study found that two patients with a rare genetic disease that destroys the amygdalae — two, almond-shaped clusters in the brain's temporal lobe — showed no aversion at all to losing money.

The amygdala is known to be involved in registering rapid emotional reactions and making decisions.

"We already know that the amygdala is involved in processing fear, and it also appears to make us 'afraid' to risk losing money," said Ralph Adolphs of Caltech, in a statement.

In the research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the two patients with the amygdala lesions and 12 people with normal brains were asked if they were take a series of gambles.

Each participant was given $50. They were then asked if they would gamble their money on a coin toss where the amount the participant could win or lose was determined by a computer program.

For example, the computer might ask if the participant would gamble on the outcome of a coin toss when they might stand to win $50 or lose $20. Another time, they might stand to win $30 or lose $40.

The researchers found that the control group, as expected, were more likely to take the gamble when the potential winnings were higher and the potential losses were lower, and when the potential losses outweighed the potential winning, they didn't take the wager at all.

The two patients with damaged amygdalae, however, were both more likely to take risky gambles than the participants of the same age and education level with no amygdala damage.

In some cases would choose to gamble even if the potential losses outweighed the potential gains.

"A fully-functioning amygdala appears to make us more cautious," said Adolphus.

The researchers said the study could offer insight into economic behaviour and decision-making.

"Monetary-loss aversion has been studied in behavioural economics for some time, but this is the first time that patients have been reported who lack it entirely," said Benedetto de Martino, a Caltech visiting researcher from University College London.

"It may be that the amygdala controls a very general biological mechanism for inhibiting risky behaviour when outcomes are potentially negative, such as the monetary loss aversion which shapes our everyday financial decisions," said de Benedetto.

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