What neuroscience says about gambling addiction

The way gambling affects the brain is the same as narcotics.

Gambling is recognised as a legal and fun activity in many countries, and millions of people engage in it. Modern gambling is now mostly done online and includes various sports and non-sports activities. The global market size of the gambling and casino industry was around 262 billion USD in 2019, and it is constantly increasing. The United States, China, Singapore, the UK, and Australia are among the countries with the highest number of gamblers.

Gambling is a risk-taking activity, and in moderation, within the gambler’s financial means, it can largely be done without adverse consequences. Problems with gambling begin to arise when it turns from a fun activity to addiction and disorder. A person with a gambling addiction must repeatedly gamble to achieve a sense of satisfaction through a dopamine release. In other words, the way gambling affects the brain is the same as the use of narcotics. It is estimated that around 0.2–5.3% of adults worldwide suffer from gambling disorders. The World Health Organization also recognises gambling addiction as a disorder.

The process of becoming addicted to something occurs when a person repeatedly trains their brain to derive satisfaction from an action. The individual may also receive rewards for doing it – such as in the case of gambling, in which a person may multiply the money that is risked. People with co-occurring mental illness or substance use disorders have an increased likelihood to start excessive gambling.

Around 0.2–5.3% of adults worldwide suffer from gambling disorders

Studying gambling addiction

Neuroscientists are working on the issue of gambling for two main reasons. Firstly, to gain a more accurate understanding of the process of human habit forming and decision-making. Secondly, gambling is a form of behavioural addiction and can provide important information about non-narcotic addictive mechanisms.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a person with a gambling disorder needs to gamble with increasing amounts to achieve the same satisfaction as before. The person will feel restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling, similar to individuals who are substance dependent. Other signs of this disorder include excessive thinking about gambling, returning to gambling even after losing money, and repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling.

Gambling addiction is a psychological problem, and of all parties involved in the treatment process, it is the individual themselves plays the most critical role in their own treatment. As of yet, no medication has been introduced to treat this disorder, but using a counsellor and different types of therapy may be helpful.

The role of dopamine

The process of becoming addicted to gambling is like any other type of addiction, and receiving physiological rewards is its driving stimulus. Receiving rewards and creating a sense of enjoyment trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. When performing certain activities that are enjoyable for a person, such as gambling, sexual activity, or eating one’s favourite food, dopamine secretion occurs. This makes a person addicted to that activity. If this occurs during gambling, it is defined as pathological gambling.

Some dopamine stimulants, such as Bromocriptine (Parlodel), Cabergoline, and Apomorphine (Apokyn), prescribed to specific patients, such as those with Parkinson’s, may increase a person’s desire for reward-based behaviors, particularly gambling. When a person becomes addicted to gambling, the natural secretion of dopamine decreases, and they are forced to seek the dopamine they need through gambling. Previous dopamine-stimulating activities, such as eating a favourite cookie or watching an exciting soccer match, can no longer produce as much dopamine as gambling provides.

The release of dopamine is the reward that gamblers receive to keep playing. This also happens for norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) – a potent hormone and neurotransmitter. One study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that pathological gamblers have lower levels of norepinephrine than normal gamblers. As such, pathological gamblers use gambling as a way to increase norepinephrine secretion.

Further studies have shown that there are biological similarities between gambling and using narcotics. Given that gambling is a reward-oriented behaviour, it can be implemented on laboratory animals. In an experiment performed on rats, they learned to avoid specific options to maximise their sugar pellet profits, similar to gambling. Other research findings suggest that any lesion in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain can affect a person’s decision-making power. This pattern has also been seen in some animals.

Gambling from a behavioural economics perspective

Gambling can also be examined from the perspective of behavioural economics. According to the Prospect Theory (PT), people in risky situations always try to choose the more profitable option and are less likely to put capital at risk. This is also known as loss-aversion. That is why offering a gamble with 50–50 chances of winning or losing is often rejected by gamblers. Gamblers are less inclined to take more risks when making a profit, but when they make a loss, their risk-taking power goes up in the hope that they will be able to make up for the loss. This phenomenon is known as “loss chasing.”

In terms of cognitive distortions, one common distortion is the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ – a term used to describe the gamblers’ mistake in predicting the next sequence of a repetitive event. Cognitive distortions create the illusion for the gambler that they are winning a game. This is primarily due to an imbalance between cognitive and emotional decision-making mechanisms in the brain.

The illusion of control is another distortion among gamblers, and it is one of the main reasons for their failure. This kind of distortion tells gamblers that they can use their skills to win a game that is in fact largely determined by chance. This can further be provoked by giving choices and making people think they have control over a game.

A large number of neuroscience-related factors can affect a person’s likelihood to gamble, including dopamine regulation and certain behaviour economics phenomenon. Understand these factors is critical to treating sufferers of gambling addiction and helping them lead a healthier life.

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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