How The Human Brain Gets Addicted To Gambling

For most people, gambling is a fun pastime that you do every once in a while. Spending a weekend in Las Vegas or visiting a riverboat casino once or twice per year is an entertaining distraction and gives you something to look forward to.

But for others, a little gambling once in a while isn’t enough. For a certain percentage of people, gambling can become an all-consuming obsession. Playing slot machines, buying scratch off cards, making big bets on sporting events can all add up to a big problem.

How The Human Brain Gets Addicted To Gambling

In a certain sense, a gambling addiction is a lot like an addiction to alcohol or drugs. While many people — maybe even most of the population – are able to enjoy a drink or recreational drug use occasionally, for others one interaction is all it takes to open the door to a lifelong addiction.

Addiction Similarities:

Scientific researchers are now discovering that this similarity between gambling addiction and drug or alcohol addiction is no coincidence. Recent studies have found that the brain chemistry of gambling addicts when they are in the throes of their addiction is nearly identical to that of drug addicts when they are high or alcoholics when they are drinking.

In fact, gambling addiction has recently been classified by scientists and mental health professionals as a behavioral addiction, a separate category that also includes substance abuse.

Gambling Addiction Defined:

Being addicted to gambling is defined as continuing to risk your money on betting despite serious and often dire consequences to your personal, professional and physical well-being.

Problem gambling can destroy the relationships you have with your spouse, your family and friends, and your co-workers. It can quickly deplete your bank account and leave you with mountains of debt and no way to pay for it. And it can easily cost you your job, your reputation, and your livelihood.

Yet people continue to do it. That’s because the high they get from gambling stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain in the same way hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine do.

Official Designation:

Gambling addiction was first officially classified as an actual psychiatric disorder in 1980, when it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association’s guide to mental issues that is widely considered the Bible of psychiatric disorders. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was about the same time casino gambling, state-sanctioned lotteries, and poker rooms first started to enter the mainstream culture.

At first, “pathological gambling” was put into a category called “impulse control disorders,” which also includes such conditions as pyromania (taking pleasure in setting fires) and kleptomania (taking pleasure in stealing or shoplifting).

But in 2013, gambling disorder was reclassified in the DSM into the category of Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders, which also includes drug addiction and alcoholism.

Brain Changes:

The decision to reclassify problem gambling came after researchers recognized the many similarities between drug and alcohol addiction and the inability to stop gambling, including:

  • Tolerance

  • Withdrawal

  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to cut down or quit

  • Substantive impact on the subject’s personal life and career

  • Cravings

  • Experiencing highs when in the throes of the addictive behavior

Plus, like drug and alcohol addiction, people with gambling problems need to make larger and larger bets in order to satisfy their cravings for the gambling thrill they are always pursuing. And when they try to quit on their own, they often experience both physical and psychological withdrawal from their behavior, which can include agitation, irritability and even feeling physically ill.

Genetic Predisposition:

Another thing researchers noticed is that gambling addictions tend to run in families, much like alcoholism. If your parents or grandparents were problem gamblers, the chances that you will develop a gambling problem at some point in your life is much higher.

This could point to the existence of a “gambling gene” that could be passed from one generation to another, although this has not yet been discovered.

Brain Tests:

Other studies have used brain imaging to note the similarities between the way different pleasure centers are stimulated by both drug addicts and problem gamblers. Neurochemical tests have definitively proven the same conclusions.

The ventral striatum, the brains’ reward center that is located deep in the middle of the brain, showed increased blood flow while both cocaine addicts and problem gamblers attached to MRI scanners were shown videos related to their addictions.

While there is still a lot to be learned about the way the brain works in problem gamblers, the connection between drug addicts, alcoholics and gambling addicts appears to be clear. There are many shared characteristics between gambling disorder and other types of addictions.

Like drug addicts, people who can’t stop gambling pursue a rewarding experience despite serious and even dangerous consequences to their lives, their relationships, and even their physical well-being.

Author Bio:This article is written by Somchai Issara on behalf of The Cabin Bangkok, an affordable and cost affective gambling addiction treatment centre in Bangkok, Thailand.

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