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The Root of Gambling Addiction Lies in the Brain

No-one starts off with a plan to become a gambling addict. The process of developing a gambling addiction can take decades, for some - while others find themselves struggling with gambling very soon after their first bet. The brain plays a systematic role in the development of a gambling addiction, almost mirroring the patterns drug and alcohol abuse. 

Interestingly enough however, problem gambling was not considered an "addiction" until the late 1980's. Prior to, it stood as a behavior that psychologists and the like could not understand fully - it was considered a compulsion, with the mere motive of relieving anxiety, rather than a craving for pleasure. The American Psychiatric Association later went on to define problem gambling as an impulse control disorder. As such, it was moved to the addictions chapter in the DSM-5 - a changing moment in medical history, that allowed psychologists to explore the biology behind gambling addictions, rather than try and understand the symptoms. 

The decision to classify compulsive gambling as an addiction was based on intensive studies within the realm of psychology, neuroscience and genetics. Researchers first determined that problem gambling and substance abuse were highly correlated in terms of the brains behavior. Though not understood nearly as well as today, substance abuse was considered an addiction based on the brains reaction to a stimuli - from there, researchers were able to determine the brains activity from one point of stimuli to the next. Gambling did not fall within that realm, until the two behavioral disorders were placed side by side. 

The Role of Dopamine in Gambling Addictions

It begins in our cranium. Our brains have what we call "a reward system", which is a series of circuits that link different parts of brain together. Motivation, movement, pleasure and memory are all funneled to by these circuits - so, most major functions of our brain are connected to our own reward system. When an individual engages in activities, neurons in our reward system produce dopamine. Dopamine is typically associated with happiness, and in turn, this is true. Dopamine signifies satisfaction and causes the feeling of happiness, which in turn, allow us to create habits based on feeling more satisfaction. For example, hugging a loved one will ignite neurons in our reward system to produce dopamine - therefore, signalling to our brain that this activity is good and should be repeated. 

Did you know? Drugs stimulate the reward system to produce 10x more dopamine than usual. 

However, researchers found that the idea of winning ignited the same response in compulsive gamblers, that it did in an individual who consistently used drugs. When subjected to continuous stimulation, the brain spends too much time in a "dopamine cloud", and it becomes desensitized to both the production and feeling of dopamine. In order for the brain to function, higher amounts of dopamine are needed- this requires an individual to seek higher levels of a stimulus, more often. 

As researchers found, the riskier ventures associated with growing gambling addictions- [betting more when losing the hand, trying to outsmart the machines, getting a bigger, better win]- mirrors the stimulus of crack, cocaine and methamphetamine.  

Gambling Addiction is Driven by Lowered Impulses

Without this high level of stimulus, the brain's level of required dopamine falls critically low and users experience withdrawal, driving them to further seek stimulus. For those who struggle with substance abuse, these withdrawals are often physical sickness. However, from those suffering from a gambling addiction, these withdrawals are psychological- the brain is saying "I am not getting enough. Make me happy."

The most notable part of understanding how the brain contributes to addiction, is that the pathways to the prefrontal cortex are weakened with inflamed levels of dopamine production. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for an individuals ability to control impulses and their ability to rationally and logically think ideas through. With this area of the brain weakened, it becomes harder and harder for those suffering from gambling addiction to stop. 

Genetics Contribute to Gambling Addictions

Studies have shown that those suffering from a gambling addiction are genetically wired to be significantly vulnerable from genetics alone. Those suffering with gambling and/or substances are found to have inherently underactive reward circuits, meaning, they tend to seek stimulus and reward more aggressively. A study conducted by Yale University, and a supporting study by the University of Amsterdam, showed that compulsive gamblers had low levels of electrical activity in prefrontal brain regions when winning. This indicates a lowered ability to surpress instincts and logically assess risks. From birth, individuals may already be at risk to develop a gambling addiction, or vices, simply through the genetic makeup of their brain. 

Redefining the Definition of Addiction

In the past, industry experts have defined addiction as a dependancy on a chemical (hence why gambling was not considered an addiction cocurrently.) However discovering that compulsive gambling does in fact mirror drug addiction gives way to a new definition of addiction itself: 

The act of pursuing a reward or stimulus, over and over again, despite serious repercussions or the internal knowledge of the negative outcomes. 

If you are suffering from a gambling addiction

Begin Recovery

You are not alone. Two million Americans suffer from compulsive gambling, and a gambling addiction, while twenty million Americans report that gambling seriously interferes with their work and personal life. Understanding why and how gambling addictions develop is, indeed, part of beginning recovery. Algamus, the oldest residential gambling addiction treatment center in the US, is here to help. Click here to get more information today.

Rick Benson

Written by Rick Benson

Rick founded Algamus Recovery Centers in 1992. A Cornell University graduate, Rick is an Internationally Certified Gambling Counselor (ICGC-II) and a Canadian Problem Gambling Counselor (CPGC). Algamus and Rick were featured on the very first episode of Intervention on the A&E channel.