Gamblers' brain activity resembles patterns in drug addicts - research shows

A gambler plays the slots at a casino (AP)

John von Radowitz

Compulsive gamblers seek games of chance because of the same brain circuits that drive drug addiction, research has shown.

Scientists identified two brain areas that were highly active when gamblers felt the urge to make a bet or spin the wheel.

Both regions, known as the insula and nucleus accumbens, are involved in decision-making, reward sensations and impulse control, and have previously been linked to alcohol and drug cravings.

The findings, reported in the journal Translational Psychiatry, could lead to new treatments for gambling addiction, say the researchers.

Co-author Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Gambling addiction can have a devastating effect not just on patients, but also their families. It can result in people losing their job, and leave families and children homeless.

"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 scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 19 people with gambling addiction and the same number of healthy volunteers.

Brain activity was monitored while each participant was asked to view a selection of images that included a roulette wheel and betting shop.

In problem gamblers, the insula and nucleus accumbens brain regions were found to be highly active when seeing a gambling image was accompanied by craving.

A link was also seen with the brain's frontal lobe, which may help to control impulses. A weaker connection between this region and the nucleus accumbens was associated with a more intense urge to gamble.

Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes, another member of the team from Imperial College London, said: "Weak connections between these regions have also been identified in drug addiction. The frontal lobe can help control impulsivity, therefore a weak link may contribute to people being unable to stop gambling, and ignoring the negative consequences of their actions.

"The connections may also be affected by mood - and be further weakened by stress, which may be why gambling addicts relapse during difficult periods in their life."