Core of the Problem

A new study shows that the pleasure receptors in the brains of compulsive gambling react differently from those of substance abuse addicts.

A university study in Germany is targeting the nature of the brains of pathological gamblers with the goal of developing new ways to treat the disorder. According to a report in Time magazine, research by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Berlin shows that there is a difference between the brain activity of pathological gamblers and those suffering substance abuse addictions.

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) uses previous research to classify a gambling disorder as “similar to substance-related disorders in clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, physiology, and treatment,” the new study shows the neurology of gambling addicts to be different than that of alcohol or drug addicts.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans on 14 male pathological gamblers and 15 non-gambling volunteers measured the levels of opioid receptors in their brains, which are activated by pleasure-causing endorphins. While drug and alcohol addicts have more opioid receptors than non-addicted humans, there was no difference between the number of receptors in pathological gamblers and healthy volunteers.

However, when the group was given an amphetamine that unleashes endorphins, additional PET scans revealed that pathological gamblers released fewer endorphins than the healthy volunteers, which indicates they need more gambling activity to get pleasure from the act than non-addicted people.

“These findings suggest the involvement of the opioid system in pathological gambling and that it may differ from addiction to substances such as alcohol,” said lead researcher Dr. Inge Mick of the Imperial College London in a press release. “We hope that in the long run this can help us to develop new approaches to treat pathological gambling.”