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Computer games and electronic gambling products frequently signal reward delivery with accompanying sound and light cues. While this sensory stimulation may seem superficially harmless, decades of research into the neurobiological processes underlying chemical dependency suggests that cue-reactivity enhances vulnerability to drug addiction. Furthermore, repeated exposure to conditioned stimuli which predict reward delivery with maximal uncertainty, or responding on variable as opposed to fixed ratio schedules of reinforcement, can by themselves sensitise rats to the locomotor and reinforcing properties of psychostimulant drugs. We have shown that adding reward-concurrent cues to laboratory-based gambling paradigms increases risky decision making in both rats and humans, and alters the recruitment of the dopamine system in the decision making process. Rats that perform the cued rat gambling task daily also self-administer more cocaine, and subsequently make even more risky choices on the task. Psychopharmacology studies in rats indicate that serotonergic, noradrenergic, and cholinergic modulation of choice preference changes when such cues are present. Behavioural experiments reveal that cues have to be reliably, but not exclusively win-paired in order to exacerbate risky decision-making in rodent models. Contrary to our initial expectations, computational modeling analyses of data from over 200 rats show that these cues do not drive risky decision making by enhancing learning from rewards, but rather preventing sufficient learning from punishments. When given the choice, most rats prefer to play the cued version of the task, even though fewer rewards are earned, and the more they select cued trials, the riskier their decision making becomes. The potential consequences for gambling disorder and addiction vulnerability will be discussed.



Professor Catharine Winstanley investigates the brain mechanisms involved in impulse control. Defects in higher-order cognitive functions such as impulse control are involved in gambling and substance abuse problems. Dr. Winstanley’s research has also shown that traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease can also result in cognitive dysfunction.

By using a multidisciplinary approach combining molecular biology techniques with pharmacological approaches and behavioural testing,  Winstanley’s Laboratory of Molecular and Behavioural Neuroscience has uncovered some of the factors and mechanisms underlying impulse control.



The seminar will be held at the Pharmacology Lecture Theatre, Department of Pharmacology 
Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3QT.  For those without keycard access to Pharmacology, use the call button at reception.  Please contact Lauren Burgeno if you would like to set up a meeting with the speaker.

If you have suggestions for future speakers, please contact Lauren (, or Nima ( They are also looking for postdocs to help coordinate future BEACON Seminars.  Please get in touch if you are interested In joining the BEACON planning committee.