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Compulsive Gambling Similar to Drug Addiction

Texas Hold’em (search) mania and the glamour of televised poker tournaments have helped transform the once taboo practice of routine gambling into an immensely popular pastime. But don’t be misled by its seemingly innocuous allure.

While it may be OK to occasionally play a game of chance, new research shows compulsive gamblers have a lot in common with drug addicts.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Researchers in Germany used imaging scans to look at the brain activity of 12 compulsive gamblers and 12 nongamblers while they played a guessing game. Each volunteer had to pick one of two cards. If the chosen card came up red, the participant won 1 Euro.

Next, the scientists compared the scans from both groups of patients, paying close attention to a brain region that signals reward. They found the region was significantly less active in compulsive gamblers, even though they won and lost the same amount of money as the nongamblers.

Several studies have shown a similar pattern in drug addiction. Drug addiction may result from a deficient reward system and drug intake is an attempt to compensate for this deficiency, say the researchers.

Decreased activation was also noted in another region which has been linked to diminished impulse control. The researchers say the lack of activity may explain the impaired impulse control in chronic gamblers who bet away more and more.

Therefore, “pathological gambling is a nonsubstance-related addiction,” the researchers conclude, in their report.

If you have a gambling problem, visit the Gamblers Anonymous web site to find the number for your local chapter.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: News release, Nature Research Journals. Reuter, J. “Pathological Gambling Is Linked to Reduced Activation of the Mesolimbic Reward System,” Nature Neuroscience, February 2005; vol 8: no 2.