How the Brain Becomes Addicted to Gambling | The Ranch

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Your Brain Composition: How the Brain Becomes Addicted to Gambling

July 24, 2017 Articles

Problem gambling is a silent destroyer. Unlike those addicted to drugs or alcohol, compulsive gamblers show no outward signs of their dependency. If they do all their gambling anonymously in casinos or alone at home on the Internet, even their closest friends and family members may never realize how out of control their gambling has become.

While the behavior of hardcore gamblers often remains hidden, so too, do the underlying mechanisms in the brain that help support their addiction. In fact the real neurological factors behind problem or pathological (addictive) gambling were not well understood until the last decade or so, which is why gambling problems were previously misclassified by the American Psychiatric Association as “impulse control disorders.”

In the most recent edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this error was corrected and gambling disorders were finally and accurately classified as addictions. It may seem unusual to see a behavior sharing a category of addiction with chemical dependency, but studies of the brain have uncovered surprising neurological parallels between substance abuse problems and gambling disorders.

The Neurological Links between Chemical Dependency and Gambling Addiction

When stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine enter the brain’s reward center, they trigger a quick and dramatic increase in the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provokes a response of intense pleasure.

If drug use continues, the fledgling addict will gradually develop a tolerance to the effects of dopamine, forcing them to take more and more of the drug in order to experience the same level of high they did during their initial usage. However, soon the brain will adjust again and start producing lower amounts of dopamine, causing the now full-blown addict to ramp up their drug use even more. The part of the brain involved in impulse control also begins to atrophy as a result of excessive drug use, making it extremely difficult for the addict to control their behavior.

As researchers have now discovered, if we substitute gambling for an addictive drug like cocaine or methamphetamine, the story remains essentially the same. Dopamine production in the brain’s reward center is boosted when a compulsive gambler wins, but tolerance develops as the frequency of the gambling increases, causing dopamine production to decline. The pleasurable high associated with gambling success is no longer as intense. This, in turn, leads the problem gambler to increase their gambling activity even more, as they chase after to the thrills they’ve come to crave.

When dopamine cycles are thrown out of sync in this way it creates artificial deficits that the compulsive gambler is desperate to fill. As the areas of the brain involved with impulse control begin to wither, the addict’s ability to resist the urge to gamble is compromised even further.

This is the pathway to gambling addiction, and those who reach this stage suffer from a condition that can be every bit as catastrophic as any form of drug addiction.

Gambling Addiction and the Need for Treatment

Those who suffer from gambling addiction face an uphill road to recovery. Compulsive gamblers who enter treatment programs can and do get better, and that is something else they have in common with alcoholics and drug addicts who are willing to face their problems and ask for help.


Scientific American: How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling

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