What does gambling do to your brain?

Gambling, whether it be lotteries, scratch cards, casino games, bingo, slot machines, poker or sports betting is more accessible than ever before. For most people, gambling is a recreational activity. But for a significant minority, it can develop into a problem.

Recent scientific research shows that gambling addicts have much in common with drug and alcohol addicts. Consider the behavior of these individuals and their brain activity.

Gambling addiction is a behavioral addiction

Gambling disorder refers to the uncontrollable urge to gamble, despite serious personal consequences. Problem gambling can affect a person’s 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 1980. In 2013, it was renamed “gambling disorder” and moved into the category of drug-related and addictive disorders, which includes alcohol and drug addictions. Gambling addiction was suddenly a household name.

There is a growing body of neuroscientific and psychological research. These studies suggest that gambling with a problem is similar to drug addiction.

Jon Grant, who studies addiction at the University of Chicago, describes it as follows:

“People will get used to gambling at some point and have to gamble with bigger bets and riskier gambling options.

When people try to stop, they go through withdrawal, with insomnia, agitation, irritability and a sense of discomfort, similar to what we see in some substance abuse disorders.”

There may be some general genetic or brain differences in people who are more prone to developing 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 behavior.

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This is your brain with gambling

Much of the research comes from brain imaging studies and neurochemical testing. These have revealed similarities in the way gambling and drug abuse act on the brain. Also the way the brains of addicts respond to such signals. The evidence indicates that gambling activates the brain’s reward system in much the same way that drugs do.

In one study, both problem gamblers and cocaine addicts watched videos related to their addictions. Both groups showed reduced activation in the ventral striatum compared to healthy control participants. The ventral striatum, located deep in the brain, is called the reward center of the brain.

The other brain region often involved in gambling and substance use disorders is the prefrontal cortex. This region is involved in decision making, control of 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 disorders are more impulsive than other people. They may have difficulty controlling their impulses because of decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex.

Much Unknown

Despite these studies, it is still unclear whether gambling changes the brain. “If we look at the brain of someone who has been gambling for 20 years, we certainly see differences, but cause or effect is unknown,” says Grant.

Scientists studying problem gambling hope that understanding the full complexity of the underlying neuroscience will eventually help dissect individual differences in the disorder. “Neuroscience can tell us how many different types of problem gamblers there are and how to tailor treatments to them,” says Grant.

Evidence from brain studies points to many shared characteristics of gambling disorders 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 considered dependence on a chemical is now defined as the repeated pursuit of a rewarding experience. That experience can be the high of a drug or the high of winning a bet, because behavior can also be addictive.