Typically, when you think of “addiction”, you think of chemical substances like drugs, nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. However, gambling is something to add to the list of dangerous addictions that can affect the brain in the same way that all of these substances do. Sure, we have all gone out and lost a little too much at the casino here and there, but usually we know when to stop. Ten years ago, the idea that someone could become addicted to gambling, which was seen more as a habit than an addiction, was controversial. Researchers have found that in some cases gambling is a true addiction.
Pathological gambling used to be viewed as more of a compulsion than an addiction. In fact, in the 1980s, pathological gambling was labeled as an impulse-control disorder. Now, pathological gambling has been moved to the addictions chapter in the DSM-5. There’s a new understanding regarding the biology of addiction and has changed the approach psychiatrists take to help people who can’t control their gambling. It doesn’t help that thanks to the internet, you don’t even need to leave your house to gamble any longer.
Recent studies in psychology, neuroscience, and genetics have determined that gambling and drug addiction are more similar than we ever expected. In our brains, a series of circuits known as the reward system links brain regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure, and motivation. When we engage in an activity that keeps us alive or helps us pass on our genes, neurons in the reward system release dopamine, which gives little waves of pleasure which then tells us things like steamy sex and enjoying delicious meals are things we should do all the time. When stimulated by addictive drugs, the reward system release up to 10 times more dopamine.
These studies show that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share the same desire for impulsivity and reward seeking. Drug addicts require strong hits to get high, and compulsive gamblers keep betting higher to keep their “high.” Both drug addicts and gamblers suffer from withdrawal when separated from their “drug.”
This new understanding of compulsive gambling has resulted in scientists redefining addiction itself. Experts used to think of addiction as chemical dependency, but now they define it as repeatedly pursuing a rewarding experience despite risks and repercussions. Therapists have even found that pathological gamblers respond better to medications and therapy traditionally used for addictions.
For some people, gambling is just an expensive means of entertainment. For others, it’s a dangerous addiction. What is it for you?