Scientists Find a Way to Reduce Gambling Impulse

By Allison McCabe 12/06/13

Using mice gambling for sugar pellets in a "rat casino," researchers have discovered how to curb behaviors associated with pathological gambling.

rat dice.jpg
Come on lucky seven... Photo via Shutterstock

According to the National Institutes of Health, pathological gambling is “being unable to resist impulses to gamble, which can lead to severe personal or social consequences.” Symptoms of pathological gambling are similar to those of other addictions and include anxiety, depression, financial and social problems, and relapse. Without treatment, the prognosis for gambling addicts is bleak.

Recently, however, scientists in British Columbia have found a way to decrease behaviors associated with problem gambling, at least in rats. Using a “rat casino” which featured a slot machine-like device with levers and flashing lights, rats gambled for sugar pellets. The rats soon displayed behavior consistent with problem gambling in humans, such as treating “near misses” as wins.

The dopamine D4 receptor has been shown to play a role in other behavioral disorders, although it has never been used for treatment. The scientists found that by using a medication that blocked the dopamine D4 receptor to treat the rats, they were able to reduce the behaviors consistent with pathological gambling, in particular the reward behavior that occurs with “near misses.”

Paul Cocker, the lead author of the study and a PhD student in the University of British Columbia’s department of psychology, was hopeful about the results. “More work is needed, but these findings offer new hope for the treatment of gambling addiction, which is a growing public health concern," he said. "This study sheds important new light on the brain processes involved with gambling and gambling addictions.”

Three to five percent of the general population are gambling addicts, but that figure is much higher in states that allow legal gambling. With the growing popularity of gambling online, that number is expected to rise even higher, especially with younger populations. In New Jersey, where online gambling just became legal, there are an estimated 350,000 gambling addicts. According to Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, "The evidence is overwhelming that internet gambling – of all forms of gambling – is the most addictive.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix. She has written for LA Weekly, Village Voice, Junk: a literary fix, Ramshackle Review, Main Street Journal and others. Follow Allison on Twitter.