Brain Imaging Behav. 2015 Feb 3.
Pathological gambling is thought to result from a shift of balance between two competing neurobiological mechanisms: on the one hand the reward system involved in the regulation of the urge to get rewards and on the other hand the top-down control system. Fifteen pathological gamblers (PG) and fifteen healthy controls (HC) were studied in an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment where participants had to choose either a smaller, but immediately available monetary reward (SIR) or a larger delayed reward (LDR). We examined contrasts between LDR and SIR decisions. Additionally, we contrasted choices near the individual indifference point (indifferent decisions) and clear SIR or LDR choices (sure decisions). Behavioral data confirmed former results of steeper discount rates in PG. Contrasting choices of LDR vs. SIR showed widespread bilateral activations in PG, including postcentral gyrus, thalamus, superior/medial frontal gyrus and cingulate gyrus, whereas HC demonstrated only focal left-sided pre/postcentral activity. Forgoing an immediate reward thus recruits a widespread brain network including typical control areas. Indifferent vs. sure decisions were associated with widespread activation in PG, including the bilateral fronto-parietal cortex, insula, anterior cingulate gyrus, and striatum, whereas in HC, only bilateral frontal cortex and insula were activated. The reverse contrast demonstrated more activity for sure decisions in the cingulate gyrus, insula, and medial frontal gyrus in HC, whereas PG showed inferior parietal and superior temporal activity. The present study demonstrates that pathological gambling is associated with a shift in the interplay between a prefrontal-parietal control network and a brain network involved in immediate reward consumption.