Gambling and the Brain



The brain is an electrochemical machine that processes through binary code - zeroes and ones endlessly creating realities in which you experience emotionally and physically. The mechanisms by which brain activity gives rise to consciousness and thought have been very challenging to understand. Despite rapid scientific progress, much about how the brain works remains a mystery.

The brains of people anticipating a win at the roulette table appear to react much like those taking euphoria-inducing drugs - it seeks a "high". The parts of the brain that respond to the prospects of winning and losing money while gambling are the same as those that appear to respond to cocaine and morphine.

The overlap of brain activity seen in the gambling experiment with that found in earlier studies of drug use indicates, the researchers said, that the brain uses the same circuitry for the processing of diverse rewards. The results of a gaming experiment, coupled with findings from prior studies of the anticipation and experience of positive and negative outcomes in humans and laboratory animals, suggest that a network of interrelated structures ... coordinate the processing of goal-related stimuli.

A challenge for the future, he said, is to determine how different parts of these brain circuits affect the thinking, emotion and motivation involved in anticipation, evaluation, and decision-making. Identifying these regions of the brain and mapping the neural pathways that process the anticipation and 'rewards' associated with drug abuse would be a tremendous boost to the development of medications or interventions that could block these circuits and provide other treatment approaches.




In the News ...



Gambling addicts arise from mix of flawed thinking, brain chemistry and habitual behavior   Cleveland.com - May, 16. 2011
B.F. Skinner, the legendary Harvard psychologist, was so certain he understood the gambling addiction process that he once bragged he could turn a bird into a betting fiend. No biological or emotional explanations were needed, Skinner insisted. Getting hooked was merely a learned behavior, the result of repetition and reward. "A pigeon can become a pathological gambler, just as a person can," the late Skinner, who famously trained birds to guide World War II missiles to their targets, once assured an interviewer. "We don't say that the human subject gambles excessively to punish himself, as the Freudians might say, or gambles because he feels excited when he does so -- nothing of the sort," Skinner said. "People gamble because of the schedule of the reinforcement that follows."


Why do losers keep gambling? Brain to blame   NBC - May 5, 2010
Study show near-wins trick people into trying again and again -- Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at which parts of the brain are active under certain circumstances, Clark found that when gamblers nearly lose, the parts of their brain that are active are the same ones that are working when they win. so they keep playing.


Brain Challenges for Compulsive Gamblers   Psych Central - March 27, 2008
A new research study finds that gambling addicts do not learn from their mistakes. The finding suggests differences in the prefrontal cortex of the brain may explain the development of impulsive or compulsive behavior that can lead to pathological gambling. The discovery implicates a biological origin for the mental rigidity that leads to harmful compulsive behavior in sufferers.

Donatella Marazziti of the University of Pisa and colleagues explain that pathological gambling revolves around the uncontrolled impulse to gamble, with serious consequences for the individual and their family. Its cause, however, is unclear. Scientists have suggested that environmental factors and a genetic predisposition play a part, affecting chemical signals in the brain. In order to home in on the underlying cause, the Pisa team evaluated a group of 15 male and 5 female pathological gamblers. They carried out various neuropsychological tests in order to explore which areas of the brain are related to the disorder. The tests included the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), the Wechsler Memory Scale revised (WMS-R) and the Verbal Associative Fluency Test (FAS). Each of which can assess particular problem-solving abilities. They compared the results with those of healthy individuals.

They found that the pathological gamblers scored well in all tests except the card sorting. In this test, the patients had great difficulty in finding different ways to solve each problem in the test as they worked through them, whereas the healthy individuals got better with practice. Findings show that in spite of normal intellectual, linguistic and visual-spatial abilities, the pathological gamblers could not learn from their mistakes to look for alternative solutions in the WCST. This suggests that there are differences in the part of the brain involved in this kind of problem solving, the prefrontal region. These differences might provoke a sort of cognitive rigidity that predisposes a person to the development of impulsive or compulsive behavior, leading to pathological gambling.


Science shows how slot machines take over your mind   Boston Globe - August 19, 2007
The growth of the gambling industry has been accompanied by a large amount of new scientific research explaining the effects of gambling on the brain. The neural circuits manipulated by gambling originally evolved to help animals assess rewards, such as food, that are crucial for survival. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved with the processing of these rewards. Whenever we experience something pleasurable, such as winning a hand of blackjack or eating a piece of chocolate cake, our dopamine neurons get excited. These neurons help the brain learn about the pleasure, and attempt to predict when it will happen again.


How Does Your Brain Respond When You Think about Gambling or Taking Risks? PhysOrg - January 26, 2007
Thinking about the possibility of winning money turns on some of the same areas of the brain that are activated when people take cocaine, eat chocolate or look at a beautiful face, Poldrack said.


Gambling has drug-like effect on brain   AP - May 24, 2001
The brains of people anticipating a win at the roulette table appear to react much like those taking euphoria-inducing drugs. A team of investigators report that the parts of the brain that respond to the prospects of winning and losing money while gambling are the same as those that appear to respond to cocaine and morphine. The overlap of brain activity seen in the gambling experiment with that found in earlier studies of drug use indicates, the researchers said, that the brain uses the same circuitry for "the processing of diverse rewards. The results of our gaming experiment, coupled with findings from prior studies of the anticipation and experience of positive and negative outcomes in humans and laboratory animals, suggest that a network of interrelated structures ... coordinate the processing of goal-related stimuli," the team led by Dr. Hans C. Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital said.

A challenge for the future, he said, is to determine how different parts of these brain circuits affect the thinking, emotion and motivation involved in anticipation, evaluation, and decision-making. "Identifying these regions of the brain and mapping the neural pathways that process the anticipation and 'rewards' associated with drug abuse would be a tremendous boost to the development of medications or interventions that could block these circuits and provide other treatment approaches," said Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The research was supported by NIDA, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

The research team led by Breiter used magnetic resonance imaging to map the brain responses of 12 men while they participated in a game of chance involving winning or losing money. They found that in the gambling experiment, blood flow to the brain changed in ways similar to that seen in other experiments during an infusion of cocaine in subjects addicted to that drug and to low doses of morphine in drug-free individuals.

The changes varied in accordance with the amount of money involved, and a broadly distributed set of brain regions were involved in anticipating a win. The more money involved, the more excited the person became. The primary response to winning, or the prospect of winning, was seen in the right hemisphere of the brain, while the left hemisphere was more active in response to losing, the researchers reported.





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