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How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling

Addictive drugs and gambling rewire neural circuits in similar ways
Effects of gambling addiction



Logan Faerber

When Shirley was in her mid-20s she and some friends road-tripped to Las Vegas on a lark. That was the first time she gambled. Around a decade later, while working as an attorney on the East Coast, she would occasionally sojourn in Atlantic City. By her late 40s, however, she was skipping work four times a week to visit newly opened casinos in Connecticut. She played blackjack almost exclusively, often risking thousands of dollars each round—then scrounging under her car seat for 35 cents to pay the toll on the way home. Ultimately, Shirley bet every dime she earned and maxed out multiple credit cards. “I wanted to gamble all the time,” she says. “I loved it—I loved that high I felt.”

In 2001 the law intervened. Shirley was convicted of stealing a great deal of money from her clients and spent two years in prison. Along the way she started attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist and remaking her life. “I realized I had become addicted,” she says. “It took me a long time to say I was an addict, but I was, just like any other.”

Ten years ago the idea that someone could become addicted to a habit like gambling the way a person gets hooked on a drug was controversial. Back then, Shirley's counselors never told her she was an addict; she decided that for herself. Now researchers agree that in some cases gambling is a true addiction.

In the past, the psychiatric community generally regarded pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction—a behavior primarily motivated by the need to relieve anxiety rather than a craving for intense pleasure. In the 1980s, while updating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder—a fuzzy label for a group of somewhat related illnesses that, at the time, included kleptomania, pyromania and trichotillomania (hairpulling). In what has come to be regarded as a landmark decision, the association moved pathological gambling to the addictions chapter in the manual's latest edition, the DSM-5, published this past May. The decision, which followed 15 years of deliberation, reflects a new understanding of the biology underlying addiction and has already changed the way psychiatrists help people who cannot stop gambling.

More effective treatment is increasingly necessary because gambling is more acceptable and accessible than ever before. Four in five Americans say they have gambled at least once in their lives. With the exception of Hawaii and Utah, every state in the country offers some form of legalized gambling. And today you do not even need to leave your house to gamble—all you need is an Internet connection or a phone. Various surveys have determined that around two million people in the U.S. are addicted to gambling, and for as many as 20 million citizens the habit seriously interferes with work and social life.

Two of a Kind

The APA based its decision on numerous recent studies in psychology, neuroscience and genetics demonstrating that gambling and drug addiction are far more similar than previously realized. Research in the past two decades has dramatically improved neuroscientists' working model of how the brain changes as an addiction develops. In the middle of our cranium, a series of circuits known as the reward system links various scattered brain regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure and motivation. When we engage in an activity that keeps us alive or helps us pass on our genes, neurons in the reward system squirt out a chemical messenger called dopamine, giving us a little wave of satisfaction and encouraging us to make a habit of enjoying hearty meals and romps in the sack. When stimulated by amphetamine, cocaine or other addictive drugs, the reward system disperses up to 10 times more dopamine than usual.

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