Gambling is a form of entertainment that can become addictive. It draws on a wide range of cognitive, social and psychobiological factors, which can lead to behavioural changes.
People may gamble when they are bored, lonely or feeling emotional stress. It may also be a self-soothing way to relieve unpleasant feelings, but this is not always a good thing, and can have negative consequences for the person gambling as well as for their loved ones.
When people gamble to excess, it is often called ‘problem gambling’. This is a serious mental health condition that can affect relationships and employment. It can also cause severe financial problems and be very difficult to break.
Problem gambling is not a single disorder; it is a group of conditions that co-occur and require different approaches to treatment. It is often thought that comorbid disorders are caused by shared familial, environmental or biological vulnerabilities.
The most common comorbid gambling conditions are a gambling addiction and a psychiatric disorder such as depression or alcoholism. Research on comorbidity has focused on the role of drug use in both conditions, but a more comprehensive understanding of how a comorbid gambling problem affects the brain would improve our knowledge of prevention and treatment.
It has been found that the dorsal striatum is involved in habit formation and that this area responds to drug addiction, but it is unclear whether these responses also apply to problem gambling.
In addition, the striatum is involved in decision making and reward. Dr Luke Clark in the Department of Experimental Psychology is studying how these processes work together to make it hard to stop playing.
He has studied the brains of volunteers while they were playing a gambling game. He is observing brain activity as they experience near-misses and choice effects, and the resulting alterations in their brains are helping him to understand how these features can be so effective at encouraging continued play.
One of the most important findings from this research is that a region of the brain called the striatum, which normally responds to rewards from food and sexual stimuli, also becomes active when humans receive monetary wins. This region is known to be a crucial part of the brain’s reward circuit, and this change in brain activity could be linked to a problem gambler’s difficulty in controlling their behaviour.
It is hoped that these findings will encourage more researchers to study brain responses to gambling games. This will help us to understand how a person’s behaviour can be influenced by their emotions, and how to help them to manage these.
The underlying biology of gambling has been poorly understood for many years, but the past 15 years have seen a great deal of progress. This has led to a new approach to diagnosing problem gambling, which has changed the way psychiatrists treat these patients. It has also helped to delineate the brain circuitry and neurochemistry involved in gambling, and this is now being translated into nonhuman primate models of gambling.