The Medial Frontal Cortex and the Rapid Processing of Monetary Gains and Losses

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Science  22 Mar 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5563, pp. 2279-2282
DOI: 10.1126/science.1066893

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We report the observation of neural processing that occurs within 265 milliseconds after outcome stimuli that inform human participants about gains and losses in a gambling task. A negative-polarity event-related brain potential, probably generated by a medial-frontal region in or near the anterior cingulate cortex, was greater in amplitude when a participant's choice between two alternatives resulted in a loss than when it resulted in a gain. The sensitivity to losses was not simply a reflection of detecting an error; gains did not elicit the medial-frontal activity when the alternative choice would have yielded a greater gain, and losses elicited the activity even when the alternative choice would have yielded a greater loss. Choices made after losses were riskier and were associated with greater loss-related activity than choices made after gains. It follows that medial-frontal computations may contribute to mental states that participate in higher level decisions, including economic choices.

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