What Happens to Your Brain When You Develop a Gambling Problem?

What Happens to Your Brain When You Develop a Gambling Problem?

For most of us, gambling is awesome. Sure, you lose every now and then, but it’s all about having fun and the thrill of hunting for that next big win.

But for a small group of people – estimated at around 3% of all gamblers – it can turn into something beyond just entertainment. For them, gambling can seriously interfere with quality of life and lead to serious financial problems.

Modern science shows that problem gambling is more than just a lack of self-control: it’s an addiction.

Why an “ad­dic­tio­n”?

When you think of an addict, what comes to mind? You probably picture someone with alcoholism or a drug problem. But according to the DSM-5, the current standard for psychiatric disorders, gambling disorders are an addiction in the truest sense.

Gambling disorders are an addiction in the truest sense.

It seems counter-intuitive. You would think that treating a problem gambler would be similar to treating, say, a compulsive shopper. But mental health professionals have demonstrated that the same treatment plans used for substance abusers are far more effective.

According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, “The rationale for [designating gambling disorder as an addiction] is that the growing scientific literature on [problem gambling] reveals common elements with substance use disorders.”

Real impact on more than just behavior

Psychologists know that people with serious gambling disorders are a lot like drug addicts in how they act. Lying to friends and family, decline in physical and mental health, and even withdrawals are all too familiar to those suffering with the addiction.

It’s not surprising then that the root of these symptoms is the same. According to Dr. Charles O’Brien, a key contributor to the DSM-5, research shows that “[gambling] activates the reward system in much the same way that a drug does.”

Obviously we’re not neuroscientists, but the findings make sense. We all get a rush from gambling. This rush is caused by dopamine being released by the brain. It’s the same stuff that makes everything from chocolate to sex feel good.

Some people are especially vulnerable to both drug addiction and compulsive gambling because their reward circuitry is inherently underactive.

But for the minority who are susceptible to a gambling disorder, this mental reward system is flawed. According to Scientific American, “some people are especially vulnerable to both drug addiction and compulsive gambling because their reward circuitry is inherently underactive.”

Continuing research agrees with this finding. The areas of the brain that are responsible for suppressing impulses are weakened in problem gamblers. Additionally, testing has shown that dopamine levels are decreased in people with a gambling disorder. Researchers have even determined that problem gamblers are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, a condition caused by dopamine malfunction.

What it all means

So, what can we take away from all of this?

Well, for one thing, problem gamblers aren’t bad people. The growing scientific consensus is that their brains are predisposed to developing a problem. This is likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

We here at AskGamblers want to make sure that every time you play, you’re having fun. We love hearing from you guys about all your big wins and crazy casino stories. It’s the best job in the world to us!

But if you feel like gambling is having a negative impact on your life, the best thing you can do is get help. The resources available today are easier to access and more effective than they have ever been. GambleAware, the National Council on Problem Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous, and many other services offer free assistance 24/7.