'Worry' spot in brain linked to financial learning

'Worry' spot in brain linked to financial learning
Randy Dotinga / HealthDay News [source]

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HDN / Washington Post (US)
HDN / US News & World Report (US)

FRIDAY, April 11 (HealthDay News) -- Stanford researchers report that worrying about something before it happens might do more than just create knots in your stomach.

They found that people who seemed to have higher levels of "anticipatory worry" -- judged by brain scans of activity in a part of the brain known as the anterior insula -- did better in a financial game, said study author Gregory Samanez-Larkin, a psychology graduate student at Stanford.

If the anterior insula was more active, the subjects had "a higher fidelity when it comes to making economic decisions," said Samanez-Larkin. "They were better at predicting what might happen." These volunteers learned to avoid losses when playing the same game months later, he noted.

"I wouldn't call it intelligence," he said. Instead, "it's a sort of expertise."

The anterior insula is a region buried deep inside the brain that's considered an artifact of humans' reptilian heritage. "At the very basic level, it has something to do with sensing danger or monitoring danger," explained Rajesh Miranda, an associate professor at Texas A & M Health Science Center.

But researchers haven't spent too much time on that region, because they prefer brain regions that are easier to access and understand, he said.

In the new study, Samanez-Larkin and colleagues recruited 23 subjects to play a financial game while scanners measured their brain activity. Eight to 10 months later, the subjects returned and played a similar game, although their brains weren't scanned. 

The researchers then tried to find links between the brain scans and how the subjects performed in the games. "We looked in the brain for readings that were active while people were anticipating losses" in the game, Samanez-Larkin said.

The results were published in the April issue of Psychological Science.

Miranda said the study doesn't add much to existing knowledge. "It seems like it deals essentially with what's been known," he said.

Still, expanded knowledge about that particular brain region could lead to better treatments for anxiety and help researchers predict who might do a better job of handling stress, Miranda said.

Samanez-Larkin said the research could also be used to detect people who are most likely to get too many credit cards and fall into debt or fall victim to scams, because they aren't adept at processing financial information. "You could identify people who are susceptible to things like this and try to help them," he said.