Gambling Addiction Activates Same Brain Pathways As Drug Cravings
According to a recent study from researchers at Imperial College London, gambling addiction activates the same pathways in the brain as alcohol and drug cravings. Findings also suggest that impulse control may be weaker in people with gambling addiction.
Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones. Bowden-Jones, study co-author from the Department of Medicine at Imperial:
“We know the condition may have a genetic component – and that the children of gambling addicts are at higher risk of gambling addiction themselves – but we still don’t know the exact parts of the brain involved. This research identifies key brain areas, and opens avenues for targeted treatments that prevent cravings and relapse.”
The study found that two areas of the brain, namely the insula and nucleus accumbens, are very active when persons with gambling addictions experience cravings. These same two areas have also been associated with alcohol and drug cravings, and are responsible for decision-making, reward processing, and impulse control.
The research was conducted at the National Problem Gambling Clinic, where scientists studied 19 patients with gambling addiction as well as 19 healthy controls. The most common problems reported were gambling related to electronic roulette and sports.
Each participant was placed in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to analyze brain activity. They were shown a variety of images, including scenes involving gambling, and asked to rate their craving levels.
The research team then determined which areas of the brain became active when the participants experienced cravings. They found that problem gamblers showed high activation in the insula and nucleus accumbens when they experienced a craving associated with a gambling image.
In gamblers, they also discovered that weaker connections between the nucleus accumbens and the frontal lobe were associated with greater cravings.
The frontal lobe, also involved with decision-making, may help regulate the insula through impulse control. Thus, a weak connection may result in increased impulsivity, making good decision-making more difficult.
Similar weak connections between these two areas have also been found to be involved with drug addiction. These connections may also be affected by mood and/or stress, which explains why both substance abusers and gambling addicts tend to relapse during challenging life experiences.
The group is now attempting to determine what treatments may reduce activity in the insula and nucleus accumbens, which in theory could reduce cravings.
The study, recently published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology