The Pleasure Principle: Gambling and Brain Chemistry

July 10, 2012 jack Gambling Stories

***Lets, for a while, look beyond the bright lights; lets mute the cha-ching sound of the slot machines; lets walk past the lottery vendors; lets disconnect from the online casino games and lets put away the chips. The word gambling comes up and immediately we attach the popular metaphors risk-taking, glamour, social scene, and easy money.

What about the less popular ones? Like lack-of-impulse-control, escapism and addiction. We’ve all seen a clip from some movie or television show where a middle aged man is huddled over a poker table or glued to a slot machine, a wild look of desperation in his eyes, beads of perspiration on his tense forehead; as he snaps warily to his wife, One more game! That’s all I need just one more.

Of course we know that his promise of just one more is never kept. One more usually carries into the wee hours of the morning, or at least until the casino closes. Meanwhile, his forlorn wife shakes her head and heads up to their room alone.

This sorry-looking middle-aged man is just one portrayal of a gambler. There are lots more not so typical ones. The people who gamble are as varied as the games themselves.

A recent Gallup poll on gambling in America found that 57% of American adults reported buying a lottery ticket in the last 12 months.

Persons whose income was in excess of $75,000 were found to be spending approximately three times as much on lotteries each month than those persons whose incomes were under $25,000.A BBC report stated that more young people gamble once a week than smoke, drink or take drugs combined.

While the physiology of these people may be different, scientists have made a discovery that could give them a unified commonality. The science journal, Nature Neuroscience, conducted a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) test on subjects as they were playing a game of cards. The results of this test showed that the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that signals reward, was less active in compulsive gamblers.

A diminution in activity in this area of the brain is known to be a trademark of drug addiction.

The explanation put forward by researchers is that people with such addictions cannot sustain the amount of the brain chemical dopamine which produces feelings of satisfaction and pleasure which is needed in the ventral striatum, for everyday life. Instead, these persons need a stronger stimulus, such as drugs or excessive gambling to make up for the deficiency.

A little more about this not-much-talked-about brain chemical. Dopamine, also known as the pleasure centre acts as a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger between brain cells. It is the brains motivational chemical. Although meant to reward vital activities such as eating and sex, this same chemical is responsible for the craving connected with addiction.

Persons with an imbalance of this neurotransmitter experience a lack of self-control, an excess of spontaneity and irrational thought. They can easily become bored and withdrawn. Pleasure voids are then created. Voids that need to be filled. The need becomes needier and an addiction is unknowingly formed.

Scientists have also gone one step further. A group, whose members include the director of neuro-psychology at the James Haley Veterans hospital and professor of psychiatry at the University of South Florida; John Schinka, as well as other professionals in the field from Rockefeller University; Indiana University School of Medicine and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, has identified a gene that increases the risk for the development of pleasure-seeking addiction.

The gene is called Mu-opioid. In one slight variation to the gene, a sub-gene called D4DR, persons with long D4DR genes were reported to have low responsiveness to dopamine. This requires them to take a more adventurous approach to life to get the same dopamine buzz that short gened people get from simple things. We know the detrimental side-effects of a gambling addiction. Gambling can steal time and attention away from spouse, children and family responsibilities. It can also lead to financial ruin and criminal behavior. It can and does get much worse. Members of Gamblers Anonymous report an attempted suicide rate about 6 times as high as that of the general public. About 10% of addicted gamblers eventually need counseling for alcohol and porn addiction.

Some medical practitioners have started treating their gambling-addicted patients with nutritional supplements that can have a positive impact on brain dopamine levels. These supplements include tyrosine, OPC grape seed or pine bark, and ginkgo-biloba. They help with focus and impulse control.

Dopamine levels can be tested through a Neuro-regulatory Profile; a simple urine test that checks the levels the 4 neuro-hormones {Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin and Dopamine} that maintain the body’s balance of mood and focus.

For those caught up in the debate over whether to legalize gambling or not, here’s a thought. As with alcohol addiction, the greater the number of bars in a neighborhood, the higher the rates of abuse. Access to gambling opportunities is just the same. Who would then be the real criminals? After all, pathological gamblers may not be acting of their own accord.

2006
Giselle Rondon


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