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What Gambling Addiction Looks Like in the Brain

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Gambling addiction seeing images

Postby Zolotaur В» 08.06.2019

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Gambling — whether it be the lottery, scratch cards, casino games, bingo, slot machines, Internet poker, or sports betting — is more acceptable and accessible than ever before. For most people, gambling is a recreational activity. But for a significant minority, it progresses to a serious problem. Players who almost win a game of chance have similar brain activity in reward pathways to those who actually win.

Courtesy, with permission: Luke Clark. Recently, scientists and mental health professionals decided to classify problem gambling as a behavioral addiction, the first of its kind, putting it in a category of disorders that also includes substance abuse.

The reason for this change comes from neuroscience research, which has shown that gambling addicts have a lot in common with drug and alcohol addicts, including changes in behavior and brain activity. Gambling disorder refers to the uncontrollable urge to gamble, despite serious personal consequences. Problem gambling can impact a person's interpersonal relationships, financial situation, and physical and mental health.

Yet it has only recently been recognized as an addiction. Problem gambling was first classified as a psychiatric disorder in In , it was renamed "gambling disorder" and moved to the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders category, which includes alcohol and drug addictions.

The decision to move gambling disorder alongside substance use disorders reflects a new understanding of the underlying commonalities between gambling and other addictions. There is a growing body of neuroscience and psychology research suggesting problem gambling is similar to drug addiction. Many of the diagnostic criteria for gambling disorder share features with those for drug dependence, such as tolerance, withdrawal, repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit, and major interference in one's life.

Problem gamblers also report cravings and highs in response to gambling. Problem gambling also runs in families, alongside other addictions. There may be some common genetic or brain differences in people who are more inclined to develop addictions, Petry says.

For example, research shows that problem gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward-seeking behaviors. Much of the research that supports classifying gambling disorder with other addictions comes from brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests.

These have revealed commonalities in the way that gambling and drugs of abuse act on the brain, and the way the brains of addicts respond to such cues. The evidence indicates that gambling activates the brain's reward system in much the same way that a drug does.

The ventral striatum, located deep inside the brain, has been termed the brain's reward center, and it's been implicated in reward processing as well as substance abuse. When people with gambling disorder watch gambling videos or participate in simulated gambling while their brains are being scanned, scientists can see changes in blood flow in specific brain areas, indicating which areas are more active.

In one study, both problem gamblers and cocaine addicts watched videos related to their addictions while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI scanner. Both groups showed diminished activation in the ventral striatum compared to healthy control participants. Problem gamblers also showed less ventral striatum activity during simulated gambling games and during the anticipation of monetary rewards than did people without gambling problems.

They argue that people prone to addiction have an underactive brain reward system and that such people are drawn to ways to stimulate their reward pathways, which can include the highs of drugs and gambling. The other brain region that is often implicated in gambling and substance use disorders is the prefrontal cortex. This region is involved in decision-making, controlling impulsivity, and cognitive control. Several studies have shown that problem gamblers and drug addicts both showed less activation of the prefrontal cortex in response to gambling-related cues.

Many studies have shown that people with gambling disorder are more impulsive than other people. They may have difficulty controlling their impulses due to reduced activation of the prefrontal cortex. Despite these studies, it is still unclear whether gambling changes the brain. People might inherently have differences in brain structure and function that lead to gambling problems, or disordered gambling could cause changes in the brain — or some combination of the two could be possible.

In particular, we need to study people early in this trajectory, those who gamble recreationally but for whom it hasn't yet become a problem. We need to follow them as some escalate their gambling into high-risk behavior and others do not. This kind of research could help identify who is at risk of developing gambling and substance abuse problems.

Scientists who study problem gambling hope that understanding the full complexity of the underlying neuroscience will eventually help parse out individual differences in the disorder.

The evidence from brain studies points to many shared characteristics of gambling disorder and other addictions. Problem gamblers resemble drug addicts, not only in their behavior, but also in their brains.

This has led to a new understanding of addiction: What used to be thought of as dependency on a chemical is now being defined as the repeated pursuit of a rewarding experience in spite of serious repercussions. That experience could be the high from a drug or the high of winning a bet, because behaviors can be addictive, too.

Mary Bates Mary Bates is a freelance science writer interested in the brains and behavior of humans and other animals. For her graduate degree in psychology, she studied the echolocation abilities of big brown bats. Diagnosis, neurobiology, and treatment of pathological gambling. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Vol 57 Suppl 8 : An overview of and rationale for changes proposed for pathological gambling in DSM Journal of Gambling Studies.

Comorbidity of DSM-IV pathological gambling and other psychiatric disorders: Results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Potenza, M. The neurobiology of pathological gambling and drug addiction; an overview and new findings. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. Pathological gambling is linked to reduced activation of the mesolimbic reward system.

Nature Neuroscience 8: Ask a neuroscientist your questions about the brain. Submit a Question. A beginner's guide to the brain and nervous system. Learn More. Log in. About the Author. Gambling disorders.

The Lancet. Also In Addiction. Mitigating the Opioid Crisis. Dopey Dopamine. Tackling the Opioid Crisis by Understanding Trauma.

Trending Popular articles on BrainFacts. Resetting the Brain's Clock. The Neuron. Ask An Expert Ask a neuroscientist your questions about the brain. Core Concepts A beginner's guide to the brain and nervous system. Animals in Research Advancing science, improving health. Like Subscribe Follow Follow Subscribe. About BrainFacts. Some pages on this website provide links that require Adobe Reader to view.

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