Neural Correlates of Opponent Processes for Financial Gains and Losses
Objective: Functional imaging studies offer alternative explanations for the neural correlates of monetary gain and loss related brain activity, and their opponents, omission of gains and losses. One possible explanation based on the psychology of opponent process theory suggests that successful avoidance of an aversive outcome is itself rewarding, and hence activates brain regions involved in reward processing. In order to test this hypothesis, we compared brain activation for successful avoidance of losses and receipt of monetary gains. Additionally, the brain regions involved in processing of frustrative neutral outcomes and actual losses were compared in order to test whether these two representations are coded in common or distinct brain regions. Methods: Using a 3 Tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, fifteen healthy volunteers between the ages 22 to 28 were scanned for blood oxygen level dependent signal changes while they were performing a probabilistic learning task, wherein each trial a participant chose one of the two available options in order to win or avoid losing money. Results: The results confirmed, previous findings showing that medial frontal cortex and ventral striatum show significant activation (p<0.001) not only for monetary gains but also for successful avoidance of losses. A similar activation pattern was also observed for monetary losses and avoidance of gains in the medial frontal cortex, and posterior cingulate cortex, however, there was increased activation in amygdala specific to monetary losses (p<0.001). Further, subtraction analysis showed that regardless of the type of loss (i.e., frustrative neutral outcomes) posterior insula showed increased activation. Conclusion: This study provides evidence for a significant overlap not only between gains and losses, but also between their opponents. The results suggested that the overlapping activity pattern in the medial frontal cortex could be explained by a more abstract function of medial frontal cortex, such as outcome evaluation or performance monitoring, which possibly does not differentiate between winning and losing monetary outcomes.