How Does Gambling Addiction Affect The Brain?

Bram Welch
22 December 2022
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Addiction is such a hard thing to comprehend for people who do not suffer from it. People are baffled by addicts making, what they consider to be, clearly bad decisions. This is because a person who isn’t suffering from addiction doesn’t have the same chemical imbalance as an addict. Decisions that you believe are easy to make, are much more difficult when the brain is literally wired to behave in opposition to that.

Gambling is a particularly unique example, especially concerning the complexities of human decision-making. This is because gambling has an inherently negative expected value which is best represented by the phrase – the house always wins. Scientists believe there is a lot to learn about how humans make decisions through studying the effect gambling has on the brain.

Addiction vs Compulsion

Humans have been gambling for thousands of years, possibly for even longer than we know. However, it wasn’t until 1980 that gambling as a pathological problem was recognised as a psychiatric disorder. At the time it was grouped into impulse control disorders, which means it was seen as more of a compulsion akin to obsessively washing hands.

This is in contrast to what is believed and accepted now. In the noughties, research started to reveal that gambling addiction is more in line with substance addiction. The same lack of control exhibited by substance abusers is also found in gambling addiction.

Mesolimbic Dopamine Pathway

Dopamine is important in the reinforcement of behaviour and the development of habits. It is involved with the reward system of the brain through the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. This is just one of several pathways in the brain concerned with dopamine. They are made up of neurons that help project messages between two different areas of the brain. They tend to deal with physiological and behavioural processes such as motivation, executive function, and in this case reward.

Dopamine originates in a group of neurons located in the midbrain. Through the mesolimbic pathway, it can reach the nucleus accumbens. This is important in the role of processing stimuli that is rewarding and/or reinforcing to the brain, both natural and drug-induced.

Humans get pleasure or a positive feeling from engaging in something they perceive as enjoyable because of this system. Sex, drugs, and yes, even rock and roll cause pleasure because of the way they trigger the mesolimbic system. It doesn’t stop there – gambling at online casino, or even something as simple as eating a piece of chocolate can activate this reward system. They are all sensory information to the brain, information that triggers the ventral tegmental area into producing dopamine that heads to the nucleus accumbens.

Addiction occurs when this system is thrown out of whack or, in more scientific terms – dysregulated.

Symptoms and Chemistry of the Brain

Research suggests that gambling can encourage our brain to produce 10 times more dopamine than other, more organic experiences do. This is exactly the same as opioids and other recreational drugs. Once addicted to something, the desire to experience the release of dopamine caused by that activity is near constant, but the euphoria is diminished.

This is essentially what addiction is. The wanting has become nonstop, but the feeling of enjoyment is diminished. This is when symptoms of addiction start to show. One of the ways our brain responds to the repeated use of these highly rewarding activities is by reducing our ability to respond to other stimuli. This can cause gambling addiction to manifest symptoms such as restlessness and irritability when not engaging in the activity.

The symptom of needing to gamble more to satisfy needs is explained by the reduced reward. Another symptom of gambling addiction is lying to friends and family to conceal the behaviour and continuing to engage in something that you know is causing you harm. This could be explained because our impulse control and decision making is seriously hindered by the chemical results of addiction.

Resetting Our Brain Chemistry

Addiction is a response to chemically altering the makeup of the brain. The brain has become an expert at making you want to gamble and not so good at making you feel better. The power of the human mind means that addicts can get out of this funk. There is always hope. Successfully abstaining is the first step on the road to recovery.

Symptoms of withdrawal will occur from abstinence because they are caused by the dysfunction of your dopamine release. It is unknown exactly how long it can take for a person’s dopamine levels to return to more natural levels. People start to notice a difference after around 90 days.

You can encourage the return to natural levels through exercise, improving your diet, and even listening to music. These are all activities that get involved with the reward centre. Sleep is crucial in the maintenance of a healthy brain and healthy brain chemistry. It can be very difficult to improve your sleep during recovery, but it is recommended that you try.

It is highly unlikely that these methods will work on their own. When looking for help, the first port of call should be your GP. They can advise you on the best next steps for your care. There are multiple rehab and therapy options for gamblers in the UK. If rehab is a possible solution, you need to consider whether you would like to go private or through the NHS, and whether you want it as inpatient or outpatient care. Inpatient care would mean temporarily moving into a rehab facility.

You can visit these websites for more information on rehab and therapy services in the UK:

Conclusion

Gambling has been around for almost all of human history, but sympathy related to problem gambling is, relatively, a very new idea. Initially, gambling addiction was characterised as a compulsion by psychiatric bodies, but research in this millennium indicates that it is much more like substance addiction.

Addiction is closely related to dopamine and the mesolimbic system or reward system. We inadvertently create imbalances in our brains by engaging in highly rewarding experiences such as gambling or taking drugs. This affects our ability to enjoy other stimuli while also diminishing the pleasure we get from engaging in the addiction. Hope is not lost, though, as our brains are powerful machines that can be healed.

Author Bram Welch

After working in journalism, teaching and hosting radio, I am now enjoying working on long-form articles around the gambling industry and iGaming for UKCasino.com & Casinogrounds.com