Gambling addiction can be spotted in the brain

March 6, 2013 - 06:43

New study reveals impaired communication across various brain regions in compulsive gamblers. This suggests that gambling addiction may be more due to a deviation in the brain than a weakness of character.

The excessive desire for gambling is caused by a defect in the brain, suggests new study. (Photo: Colourbox)

A lack of self-control is one of the main problems for compulsive gamblers. These people are often mocked for not being able to stop while the going is good.

But now a sensational new study, published in the journal PNAS, suggests that a compulsive gambler’s lack of self-control may actually be caused by deviations in the brain.

“We have shown that people who suffer from compulsive gambling have less self-control than healthy people, and that this is related to changes in the brain,” says Kristine Rømer Thomsen, who took part in the study as a PhD student at Aarhus University’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience.

Gamblers couldn’t restrain themselves

The researchers reached their conclusion after conducting experiments in which compulsive gamblers were asked to complete a task that challenged their ability to control their impulses. They were asked to push a button whenever a cross appeared on the screen in front of them. If a circle appeared immediately after the cross, they were asked not to push the button.

As expected, the gamblers found it much harder to avoid pushing the button than the control subjects in the experiment.

While doing this task, the participants were scanned in an MEG (Magnetoencephalography) scanner.

Facts

Conscious experiences are always accompanied by a self-component. This may be either minimal self-awareness, such as the feeling of ownership of the experience, or extended self-awareness as in self-reflection.

The researchers paid particular attention to the communication between two specific brain regions, which are known to contribute to our self-awareness, and are assumed to play a significant role in a person’s ability to control his or her impulses.

The scanner enabled the researchers to chart the activity in these regions by showing how and to which degree the regions interacted with each other.

They found that the communication between the two most important areas in this network – the ‘medial prefrontal cortex/gyrus cinguli anterior’ at the front of the brain and the ‘medial parietal cortex/gyrus cinguli posterior’ at the back of the brain – was impaired in the compulsive gamblers.

“Our findings underscore the importance of a lack of self-control in the development of addiction, whether it be about drugs or gambling,” says Thomsen.

“For the patients it should be useful that we can now demonstrate that self-control is related to changes in the brain. This strengthens the view that this is a disease.”

A chicken and egg situation

The new findings are not only useful in relation to gambling; they also give the researchers a better understanding of addiction in general.

Facts

Associate Professor Arne Møller, who was also involved in this study, has previously documented that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a much greater part in a gambler’s decision making, compared to healthy people.

Compulsive gamblers generally have dopamine levels that are slightly lower than normal. This, Møller found, is what makes them want to gamble as it can cause slight increases in dopamine levels – but only as long as they gamble unwisely and make risky decisions rather than acting rationally.

This helps explain why the compulsive gamblers in this new study decided to push the button instead of holding back.

Previous studies of drug addicts and alcoholics have also pointed towards impaired self-control using the exact same tasks and method. The Danish researchers are the first in the world to show this correlation in gamblers.

The problem with such studies, however, is that they say nothing about which came first – whether the lack of self-control and the associated changes in the brain are a result of the addictive behaviour, e.g. gambling, or whether these factors caused the addiction.

“We need further studies to answer these questions,” says Thomsen.

“It is, however, important to note that our results show an impaired self-control and related changes in the brain that are independent of previous drug use. This may suggest that it’s the changes in the brain and the lack of self-control that came first.”

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Dann Vinther