Scientists identify part of brain linked to gambling addiction

April 7, 2014, University of Cambridge
Brain diagram. Credit: dwp.gov.uk

New research reveals that brain damage affecting the insula – an area with a key role in emotions – disrupts errors of thinking linked to gambling addiction. The research, led by Dr Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge, was published today, 07 April, in the journal PNAS.

During games, people often misperceive their chances of winning due to a number of errors of thinking called cognitive distortions. For example, 'near-misses' seem to encourage further play, even though they are no different from any other loss. In a random sequence like tossing a coin, a run of one event (heads) makes people think the other outcome (tails) is due next; this is known as the 'gambler's fallacy'.

There is increasing evidence that problem gamblers are particularly prone to these erroneous beliefs. In this study, the researchers examined the neurological basis of these beliefs in patients with injuries to different .

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

For the study, the researchers gave patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain (the , the amygdala, or the insula) two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that delivered wins and 'near-misses' (like a cherry one position from the jackpot line), and a roulette game involving red or black predictions, to elicit the gambler's fallacy. For the control groups, they also had patients with injuries to other parts of the as well as healthy participants undergo the gambling tasks.

All of the groups with the exception of the patients with insula damage reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game, and also fell prey to the gambler's fallacy in the roulette game.

Clark added: "Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in , making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking. Future treatments for could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies."

Gambling is a widespread activity: 73% of people in the UK report some gambling involvement in the past year* and around 50% play games other than the National Lottery. For a small proportion of players (around 1-5%), their gambling becomes excessive, resulting in features seen in addiction. Problem gambling is associated with both debt and family difficulties as well as other mental health problems like depression.

Explore further: Study uncovers why almost winning is just as good for some gamblers

More information: Damage to insula abolishes cognitive distortions during simulated gambling, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1322295111

Related Stories

Study uncovers why almost winning is just as good for some gamblers

February 25, 2014
A new study led by the University of Exeter and Swansea University has pinpointed the changes in the brain that lead gamblers to react in the same way to near-misses as they do to winning.

New study reveals scale of problem gambling among homeless population

April 3, 2014
Homeless people are ten times more likely to be problem gamblers than the UK population as a whole, researchers at Cambridge have found.

Scientists reduce behaviors associated with problem gambling in rats

October 29, 2013
With the help of a rat casino, University of British Columbia brain researchers have successfully reduced behaviours in rats that are commonly associated with compulsive gambling in humans.

Fear of stigma stops people from seeking problem gambling help

November 18, 2013
While gambling is an accepted past-time in our community, having a problem with your gambling is not.  There is also significant public stigma connected to seeking help for gambling problems – so much so, that it may stop ...

Recommended for you

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...

Can writing your 'to-do's' help you to doze? Study suggests jotting down tasks can speed the trip to dreamland

January 11, 2018
Writing a "to-do" list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants ...

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Tamper-resistant oxycodone tablets have no impact on overall opioid use

January 11, 2018
The introduction of tamper-resistant opioid tablets does not have an effect on rates of opioid use or harms at a population level, according to a new study led by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Apr 08, 2014
"I make a regular income by waiting until five reds or five blacks come up in a row and then betting on the opposite colour!!"

Example of a statement we never hear.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.