Why Neuroscience Research is Vital to Understanding a Dynamic Correlation Between Substance Abuse and Gambling Addiction
Historically, what may have limited the scope of research on gambling may be due to its definition. Gambling is defined as a practice of placing something of value at risk in the hopes of gaining something of greater value. As such, this attitude of hope is manifest in certain behavior that has the propensity to impact finances, interpersonal relationships and family itself. However, what recent research presents is that like substance abuse, gambling activity changes the brain and how it processes information.
Neuroscience studies the functional operations of the brain and its component parts. Important research has made the connection that gambling is both an addiction and a disease. In particular, their findings suggest that there are two contributing domains that impact the brain of the substance abuse and gambling: (1) the ventral striatum and (2) the prefrontal cortex (Reilly, 2011).
The ventral striatum is the reward system that produces neurotransmitters that sends signals that create dopamine, which activates feelings of accomplishment. FMRI research suggests that addicts and gamblers each share the same low activity levels in this sector of the brain. This points to the concept that users/gamblers suffer from the need for more stimuli to produce this sensation in responses to these lower levels. Gambling activates that sensation that drugs offer and the need for more stimuli to be satiated. Hence, the impulse to protract this behavior continues.
The prefrontal cortex represents the executive functioning sector of the brain that makes decisions. The relationship between this frontal lobe with the reward center is that it is designed to manage irrational thoughts to quell inappropriate behavior. Normally, when the limbic system is in balance the frontal lobe effectively guides prudent actions. However, research suggests that this domain registers low activity as well in both substance abuse and gambling studies. The impact of this dynamic relationship between the reward and executive centers is that the former requires the latter to offer safeguards. However, if executive signals are blurred then individuals operate unaware that they are venturing into dangerous territory.
Importantly, the substance abuser or gambler each crave the sensations from using substances or gambling but don’t know when to stop because there is delayed reaction from consumption and its physiological or psychological affect. Inebriation or gaming euphoria clouds the frontal lobe rendering it useless in stopping this abusive behavior.
Similarly, gambling offers an illusory distortion or an “illusion of control” (Potenza, 2008). A recent study found that pathological gamblers displayed a greater tendency to overestimate their control of positive outcomes. What this suggests is that gambling not only mirrors dysfunction within the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex but that it is a processing disorder.
The distortion of gambling as a problem, draws upon the illusion of control but the disconnect is that the gambler like the alcohol see no need to quit (Potenza, 2008). Their perception is that they have the capacity to quit and are seen as in denial. They process this inference through a distorted lens. When confronted by peers the sympathetic nervous system (limbic system) activates the fight or flight defense mechanisms creating cortisol. This destabilizes the anterior cingulate sufficient to render the prefrontal cortex useless in making rational decisions or processing reality.
Just as the dopamine overload clouded the frontal lobe from ceasing inappropriate drinking or gambling, this processing disconnect occurs when the brain effectively blurs the prefrontal cortex from correcting this behavior. The high obfuscates normalized behavior, which surfaces later where the truth or reality of what has occurred is actualized. Consequently, it is hypothesized that gambling mirrors addictive behavior in alcoholics and other substance abuse preferences.
Presently pathogenic approaches have found that Opioid antagonists have been successful. In particular, naltrexone indirectly inhibits brain cells from producing dopamine, thereby reducing cravings. However, in cases where individuals have experienced depression Opioid antagonists may elevate this condition.
Saultogenic or more holistic approaches have found that cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people to resist unwanted thoughts and habits. Gambling addicts may learn to confront irrational beliefs or automatic thoughts to discern when triggers emerge and how to manage them (Beck & Beck, 2011). Homework is assigned including journaling to evidence automatic thoughts to tune the mind (attitude) in order to augment the urge (behavior) to pursue addictive stimuli.
Pathologically one area that may offer substantive data for research in the origin of gambling addiction is an inner need to visualize distinctive competencies. The illusory perception of gambling acumen and the ability to attain winnings to elevate the reward system, may correlate in such a way as to provide evidence that gambling represents a need to validate one’s talent. Importantly, assessment questions should include whether individuals experience doubt about their self-worth and how triggers may lead to mechanisms to stimulate reward-seeking endeavors such as gambling.
Genetic research may also be explored to further study how genetic markers may offer individuals with a history of alcoholism or drug use, may predispose one to gambling addiction. If so, functional MRI studies may evidence early signs of the need to fill reward –seeking needs due to weaker activity in the prefrontal cortex or ventral striatum. Finally, cross-sectional studies between the efficacy of pathogenic treatment may examine how cognitive behavioral therapy may provide a more viable holistic approach to treatment.
Blair Hollis M.A. GCDF BCCC
Crossroads Consulting, Inc.
Beck, J. S., & Beck, A. T. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. New York:
The Guilford Press.
DeCaria, C., Hollander, E. Grossman, R. & Wong, C. (1996). Diagnosis, neurobiology, and
treatment of pathological gambling. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, (57), 80-84.
Jabr, F. (2016, October 04). “How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling.” Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-brain-gets-addicted-to-gambling/
Potenza, M., (2008). The neurobiology of pathological gambling and drug addiction; an
overview and new findings. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. 363: 3181-3189.
Petry, NM, Blanco C, Auriacombe M, Borges G, Bucholz K, (2014). An overview of and
rationale for changes proposed for pathological gambling in DSM-5. Journal of Gambling Studies. 30(2): 493-502.
Reilly, C. (2011). Gambling and the Brain: Why Neuroscience is Vital to Gambling Research.
National Center for Responsible Gambling. (6):1-32.