THE brains of gambling addicts are affected in the same way as alcoholics and drug addicts, experts have revealed. The discovery could lead to new treatments to combat the destructive addiction, they said today. A new study has identified the two areas of the brain that scientists believe are to blame for gambling addictions.
The connections in the brain that control our impulses may be weaker in people with gambling addictions, the team at Imperial College London found.
Their findings provides vital clues into the biology of gambling addictions, said Dr, Henrietta Bowden-Jones, who is director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, and part of the Imperial team.
She said: “Gambling addiction can have a devastating effect not just on patients, but also their families. Experts hope that the discovery will lead to new treatments to combat cravings and gambling addictions. . . . .
“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 greater 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 study, funded by the Medical Research Council, identified two areas of the brain that are highly active in gambling addicts when they experience cravings.
They were the insula and the nucleus accumbens, located deep in the brain and key to decision-making as well as reward and impulse control.
“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.” ~Dr Henrietta Bowden-JonesImperial College London
Activity in these areas has previously been linked to drug and alcohol addictions, the researchers noted. In the UK, experts estimate gambling affects up to 593,000 people.
The condition can be treated using talking therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or drugs to limit cravings. To arrive at their findings the researchers examined 19 gambling addicts and 19 healthy volunteers.
The addicts were most likely to report problems with electronic roulette and betting on sports fixtures.
MRI scans were carried out on each volunteer, to monitor brain activity while they were shown pictures of gambling scenes – a roulette wheel or betting shop, for example. They were then asked to rate their level of craving when they saw each image.
The researchers, which included experts from the University of Cambridge and British Columbia as well as Imperial, found in problem gamblers the insula and nucleus accumbens were highly active when pictures of gambling were shown, and they experienced a craving. And, they noted a weakness between these two areas of the brain and an area called the frontal lobe – which helps a person make decisions.
Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes, co-author if the study from Imperial, said the frontal lobe may be important, helping keep the insula in check and helping control impulses.
“Weak connections between these regions have also been identified in drug addiction,” Prof Lingford-Hughes explained. Scientists found the areas of the brain affected by gambling addiction are the same as those affected in the brain’s of alcoholics and drug addicts.
“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.”
She said monitoring these connections can help doctors assess the effectiveness of treatment and help prevent relapse. The researchers are now looking at which therapies can reduce activity in these areas, to help reduce cravings.
And they hope to compare the brain activity of addicts and those people who gamble but do not become addicted, to investigate why addiction escalates in some but not others.
The findings are published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.