Problem gamblers’ brains have difficulty anticipating rewards


problem-gambling-brain-rewardNew brain research shows that the brains of problem gamblers have more difficulty than non-addicts in anticipating monetary rewards.

On Wednesday, JAMA Psychiatry published the findings of researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands who analyzed 25 neuroimaging studies involving brain reward sensitivity of over 1,200 participants, about half of whom were addicted to either gambling or substances (coke, smack, weed, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and the other half a control group of non-addicts.

The researchers set out to determine the nature and direction of “pathophysiologic reward-processing disruptions in the brain during anticipation and outcome notification of monetary rewards.”

The addicts’ brains showed decreased activation in the striatum – a core region of the brain’s reward circuit – during reward anticipation when compared to the non-addicts. Radboud researcher Arnt Schellekens said this suggested the addicts “did not expect much from the reward.”

But the results were mixed when it came to the reward outcome phase, as the substance abusers showed increased activation in the ventral striatum compared to the control group, while the problem gamblers’ brains continued to show decreased activation.

Schellekens said the substance abusers’ increased response during the reward outcome phase, which is “often interpreted as increased surprise to the reward, could actually follow from low expectations.” Researchers didn’t have an easy answer for why the gamblers didn’t share these low expectations.

Reward stimuli play a major role in learning behavior, and the researchers believe addicts have problems learning when to expect a reward, which could be why they find it hard choosing not to abuse drugs or gamble. Researchers hope to determine if psychological treatment or medication may be employed to influence these learning processes.

There’s been no shortage of research showing that the brains of problem gamblers are simply wired differently than individuals who don’t have difficulty keeping their betting behavior in check, which could explain why problem gambling prevalence has remained more or less constant – or even decreased – despite a dramatic rise in the availability of gambling options over the past couple decades.

Previous studies have shown that gamblers’ brains react to gambling stimuli similar to drug addicts experiencing cravings, produce less endorphins and are more prone to cognitive distortions. Problem gamblers are also far more likely to abuse substances and are 8x more likely to have a relative who shares their inability to control their behavior.