How Gambling Affects the Brain
In the United States, four in five people say that they have gambled at least once in their lives. With casinos, lotteries and online gambling so readily available, some people develop serious problems. Fortunately, compulsive gambling is treatable. But treatment must be individualized and includes psychotherapy, support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, and for some people, medications including antidepressants, mood stabilizers and opioid antagonists.
In this article, we will explore how gambling affects the brain, factors that contribute to problematic gambling and possible treatments for these disorders. It’s important to know how gambling works and the risks associated with it, so that you can make informed decisions about gambling.
A person with gambling disorder is someone who is preoccupied with the idea of gambling (for example, reliving past gambling experiences, planning or anticipating future wagers, or thinking about how to get money to gamble). The person may lie to hide their involvement in gambling and jeopardize a relationship, job, education or career opportunity because of it. They often feel helpless, guilty, anxious or depressed and experience difficulty functioning socially and at work. They can also become reliant on alcohol or other drugs.
Problem gambling is a serious and growing public health concern, with consequences for individuals, families and communities. It is characterized by an impaired ability to control one’s spending, increased use of credit and debt, and disruption of personal relationships. It can lead to depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Research suggests that there is a higher prevalence of mental illness in people with gambling problems.
There are many different types of gambling, from playing the lottery to putting money down on horse races or sports events. But the most common type of gambling is betting on random events, like a roll of the dice or a spin of a slot machine. It’s important to understand how gambling works, so that you can make informed choices and avoid harming yourself or others.
Scientists have found that when people win at gambling, the reward circuit in their brain lights up. This is a very reliable pattern and it happens in the same part of the brain that responds to natural reinforcers, such as food or sexual stimuli, and drugs of abuse, such as cocaine.
But the truth is that you can’t predict a winning combination in a game of chance, and there’s no guarantee that you will come out on top. In fact, you are more likely to lose than to win. That’s because the house always wins.
But what’s most dangerous about gambling isn’t that you can lose your money, it’s that you can lose your self-control and your integrity. Many studies of risk taking have linked gambling to fine alterations in the way value computations are represented in the ventral striatum and amygdala. These alterations may account for the asymmetric sensitivity to gains and losses that is characteristic of pathological gambling, as well as the “loss chasing” behavior that many problem gamblers exhibit.