Understanding the brain mechanisms of problem gambling

In relation to Safer Gambling Week 2022 we’ve put a number of initiatives together to shed light on the serious matter of gambling addiction and what we can do to ensure safer gambling in the industry. This short article explores how gambling as an activity can affect the brain and why it in some cases can lead to problematic gambling behavior.

While most people gamble to experience excitement or relax, it is also an activity that can bring about negative consequences such as spending money on gambling that should have been used for something else.

Gambling as an activity acts upon the reward system of the brain, which is usually responsible for processing natural rewards such as food and sex. The reward system is important for learning and motivating behavior and is found in both animals and humans, although the human reward system is more complex. Gambling as an activity affects the reward system and can create a very strong feeling of ‘high’. This feeling is created not only by the rewards itself but by the anticipation of a possible reward and is what makes many people come back to the casino table to try their luck.

For some people this continued exposure to gambling hijacks the reward system creating a desire to gamble that is so strong that it is almost impossible to resist. This strong urge can be activated by gambling cues such as betting advertisements or gambling-like sounds. Researchers within problem gambling behavior talk about an imbalance between two pathways in the brain responsible for the feeling of ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’. For problem gamblers the pathway responsible for wanting to gamble can become so strong that it controls almost all decisions making, while the response from the liking pathway is too weak to satisfy the experienced urges. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as tolerance, where a gambler needs to increase their gambling to experience the same level of satisfaction as they used to, which can lead to gambling consumption spiraling out of control.

As a gambler the best thing you can do is be proactive. Set limits for yourself both regarding how much money and time you can use and reflect on why you gamble. If gambling becomes associated with negative consequences or emotions, takes over important aspects of your life, or becomes a way to escape unpleasant emotions, you should react promptly to avoid escalation of problems. It is always a good idea to talk with a professional if you are in doubt.

Luckily, the brain is adaptive and the reward system can be rewired but this requires perseverance and often help from clinicians. Problem gamblers are battling strong brain systems and attempting to overcome these using only willpower is usually a lost cause. But with the right tools it is possible to overcome even the most hopeless situation.

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