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The Science of Gambling Addiction

This article is more than 12 years old.


INTRO: Governor Deval Patrick is expected to announce whether he will support casino gambling in the state any day now.

People opposed to casino gambling often point to the problem of gambling addiction, saing new casinos will encourage more people to become addicted to betting, and destroy fortunes and lives.

Chris Berdik looked into the science of gambling addiction and has this report.BERDIK: On a November night in 1977, at the dog track in Raynham, Massachusetts, Ed Talbot reached his breaking point. His 20-year gambling habit had cost him his savings, his job, and his marriage. And finally, on that night, he bet all he had left on a dog named Perfect Treasure.

TALBOT: The box opened, the dogs came out and Perfect Treasure fell, and that was the end of my dream. There were no more races, the track was closed for the season, and I had no money, I was living off my Dad, I had to sponge off him, I had no job. I had a car with the floor boards rotting through. And I contemplated suicide.

BERDIK: But instead, Ed entered a 12-step program and quit the track. Eventually, he started counseling other recovering addicts. Now retired, he lives in the seaside community of Mattapoisett, not far from the town of Middleboro, which is working with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a major resort casino in their town.

Ed serves on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, which has called for more state funding to train gambling addiction counselors if the Commonwealth joins the 40 other states that allow casino gambling.

But as the state weighs the economic promise of a casino, scientists have only recently started exploring the gambling mind, actually looking into what happens inside the brains of people like Ed when the dice roll or when the starting gates swing open at the track.


BERDIK: As far as our brains are concerned, when we walk into a casino all the action starts in our midbrain, in a bundle of neural pathways called the "natural reward circuit." Whenever we experience something pleasurable, from a delicious meal to a slot machine jackpot, the neurotransmitter dopamine pulses through this circuit.

Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA's gambling studies program, says that for most of us, this natural reward circuit is critical for learning and motivation.

FONG: It's a hard wired circuit that is inside our brains, that is evolutionarily important. Because if we couldn't experience pleasure or reward, why would we ever do anything, or seek out new experiences.

BERDIK: But for some of us, the natural reward circuit is in overdrive, pumping dopamine, pedal to the floor.

FONG: A lot of pathological gamblers will tell me when they walk into a casino they start salivating, they talk about being in the zone, they talk about having this profound euphoria.

BERDIK: Or take that scene in the 1974 film, "The Gambler," where a wild-eyed James Caan, already $44,000 in the hole, is on a payphone with his bookie.

FILM CLIP ("The Gambler"): I'm hotter than a pistol!

BERKIK: The notion of a reward circuit gone haywire underlies a lot of today's research into the biology of addiction. And the kicker is that the neurons in this circuit don't need an actual reward to get excited. Anticipation is more than enough.

Hans Breiter, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, demonstrated this a few years ago.

He scanned the brains of normal healthy people playing games of chance where a spinning wheel either won or lost them cash. It turned out that the subjects' reward circuits lit up even before the wheel settled on a number, reacting simply to the prospect of a jackpot.

Gamblers, especially habitual ones, have long talked about the rush. Ed felt it.

ED: The sensation then was like, you know you're on the edge. It was like skydiving.

BERDIK: As a result, a little winning, just enough to kick start those reward anticipation neurons, can make gambling fun even if at the end of the night you're down, by a lot.

In his lab, Breiter pulls out a paper comparing the brain scan of a healthy person playing a game of chance with that of a cocaine addict from an earlier experiment in which the subjects' brains were scanned before during and after receiving an shot of cocaine.

BREITER: In this particular image what you see is a splotch of color on top of a part of the brain. We could not differentiate between the healthy control subject, having the expectancy of a gain, and the cocaine subject having the expectancy of a cocaine infusion.

BERDIK: Breiter's research shows that in addition to an overactive reward circuit, the brains of people with gambling addiction are different in another way.

When people viewed a spinning wheel with mostly negative numbers, in other words, when they faced a potential loss. The natural reward circuit was much less active, but some parts of the brain were more active, including the orbit frontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us control our impulses, evaluate risk, and make decisions like when to fold a hand in poker. It's why the orbit frontal cortex is sometimes called "the brakes of the brain."

This summer, Dr. Fong of UCLA published research in which he compared the brain functions of compulsive gamblers and methamphetamine addicts. He found that both groups display similar impairments to the part of the brain where the orbit frontal cortex resides. In other words, says Fong, for both compulsive gamblers and meth addicts, the brakes are gone.

FONG: Says fascinating question is how did these brain changes happen? Were people born this way, or is it possible that just by the act of gambling itself, that somehow people are able to modify their brain functioning and then all the sudden create this condition of pathological gambling.

BERDIK: So while experts say about five percent of the population is at risk for compulsive gambling, how much of that risk is influenced by factors like the proliferation of online gambling or, say, having a glitzy new casino right down the road? Again, Dr. Fong.

FONG: My personal believe is there's probably a combination here. Where people are probably born with vulnerability, or a biological susceptibility to develop gambling addiction, but unless they are exposed to gambling at an early age, they're probably not going to develop this problem.

BERDIK: Addiction researchers are conducting clinical trials on drugs to help treat problem gamblers, but no matter what scientists discover those who work with compulsive gamblers say that breaking the habit will always take more than a pill. It often takes major lifestyle changes.

After Ed lost everything at the dog track and stopped gambling, he took up jogging. He lost 75 pounds, and he quit a two pack a day smoking habit. And while it's been three decades since he last placed a bet, Ed still avoids driving by the dog track.

ED: It's not like the car is going to automatically pull in, but I don't need to see it. I understand that gambling is absolutely fine for 95 percent of the population, but this is one person who can't handle it.

BERDIK: For WBUR, I'm Chris Berdik.

This program aired on September 4, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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