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Gamblers go all-in on Ritalin: risk taking may rise when using stimulant for focus.

A dose of Ritalin makes healthy women more reckless in a gambling game. After taking the stimulant, participants in an experiment shifted their betting strategy and kept playing even when faced with stakes too high for most folks.

Though solid numbers are scarce, evidence suggests that many healthy people use methylphenidate (Ritalin) and other stimulants to boost mental capacity.

The new results, published in the Sept. 19 Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that the drugs might have unanticipated consequences for these people, says study coauthor Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn of New York University.

Scientists have known that the very same drug has an opposite effect in people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a kind of dementia, normalizing these people's risky behavior. Scientists can't yet explain Ritalin's divergent effects, but they suspect that variations in how the brain handles the chemical messenger dopamine maybe involved.

Researchers in Denmark enlisted 40 healthy women to take either Ritalin or a placebo, and later play a gambling game. The game was rigged so players would quickly rack up a loss and then have to choose whether to double-down in the hopes of recovering their money.

When the stakes get too high, most people bow out and accept their loss. Women on the placebo behaved this way in the gambling game, which used fake money and awarded a real cash prize to the overall winner. But women who got Ritalin kept betting, even when the stakes reached 1,600 kroner, or about $280. These women seemed inured to the fear of losing a big pot of money.

More studies are needed to know exactly how Ritalin, which boosts levels of dopamine and another chemical called noradrenaline in the brain, influences risky behavior. Ritalin and similar drugs might shift people to be more focused on the potential reward at the expense of thinking about consequences. Or the drugs might impair a person's ability to recognize a risky situation or learn from a loss.

Other drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine, that behave similarly to Ritalin in the brain might also increase aspects of risky behavior, says cognitive neuroscientist Trevor Robbins of the University of Cambridge in England. And these changed behaviors, which might include drug seeking and using, could promote addiction.
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Title Annotation:Body & Brain
Author:Sanders, Laura
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 20, 2012
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