The University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada.
Problem gambling (PG) is increasingly conceptualized as an addiction akin to substance abuse, rather than an impulse control disorder, however the mechanism of addiction remains unclear. Neuroimaging investigations have supported a “reward deficiency” hypothesis for PG by suggesting a blunted response to gambling, particularly in the striatum. Here we describe electrophysiological evidence of a hypersensitive response to gambling feedback in problem gamblers. Previous research in healthy participants has shown that feedback during gambling tasks triggers stereotypical neural responses including the Feedback-Related Mediofrontal Negativity (FRN), the feedback-related P300, and an increase in induced theta-band (4-8 Hz) power. We tested the theory that abnormal feedback processing characterizes brain activity in problem gamblers while gambling. EEG was recorded from non-gamblers and self-identified gamblers as they engaged in a computerized version of the Iowa Gambling Task. Feedback about valence (win vs. loss) triggered a FRN in both groups, but in gamblers this was preceded by an early-latency hypersensitive fronto-central difference to feedback. This early FRN was correlated with gambling severity and was localized to medial frontal cortex using distributed source imaging (CLARA). Gamblers also differed in responses to risk, showing a blunted P300 component and less EEG power in the theta band. Here we suggest that a more nuanced interpretation of reward deficiency is called for with respect to PG. For certain aspects of brain function, gamblers may exhibit hypersensitivity to reward feedback more akin to drug sensitization than reward deficiency. Our results also suggest that the neurologically normal brain employs dissociable systems in the processing of feedback from tasks involving risky decision making.