Part of Brain Associated with Gambling Addiction Identified

gambling addictionDamage that affects the insula, or the area of the brain that plays a key role in emotions, can disrupt thinking that is linked with gambling addiction.[1] Researchers, led by Dr. Luke Clark, from the University of Cambridge, have recently published a report in the journal PNAS regarding their findings.1

While people play gambling games, they often misperceive their chances of winning, due to a number of errors in their thinking, called cognitive distortions.1 Near-misses often encourage further play, although they are in fact no different from any other loss.1 For example, in a game of tossing a coin, an outcome of heads often makes people think that the outcome of tails is due next.1 This thinking is known as “gambler’s fallacy.”1

People with gambling addiction are particularly prone to erroneous beliefs.1 Therefore, Clark and colleagues conducted a study to examine the neurological basis of these beliefs, focusing on patients with injuries to the brain.1

“While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain’s response to complex events, it’s only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task,” said Clark.1

For the study, researchers gave patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain—ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, or insula—two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that gave wins and near-misses, and a roulette game involving red or black predictions to elicit gambler’s fallacy.1 For the control groups, they also had patients with injuries to other parts of the brain, as well as healthy participants.1

All of the groups, with the exception of the patients with insula damage, reported that they felt a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game.1 They also feel prey to the gambler’s fallacy in the roulette game.1

“Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking,” said Clark. “Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies.”1

Gambling addition is wide-spread.1 For a small amount of players—approximately one to five percent—gambling becomes excessive and results in addiction.1 Gambling addiction is associated with debt, family difficulties, and other mental health problems.1

[1] University of Cambridge. (2014, April 7). Part of brain linked to gambling addiction identified by researchers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140407153915.htm

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