Gambling Addiction and the Brain

In Saint Louis, Missouri, a national conference on gambling addiction and substance abuse is underway. When it comes to gambling, Fox 2’s Charles Jaco reports that the focus is less on casinos and more on brain chemistry.

“Holding a gambling addiction conference in casino-rich St. Louis almost gives addiction researchers a giant laboratory to study how casinos stimulate the brain,” Jaco said. “That stimulation apparently helps lead to gambling, acting literally like a drug.”

Jaco tells the story of Bob Neuls from Cuba, Missouri, who keeps a record of every check he’s written to cover his gambling debts. “I cannot pinpoint a loss but I’ve gone through 130,000 dollars,” Neuls said.

Bob Neuls has Parkinson’s disease, and to control it, he takes a synthetic version of the brain chemical dopamine. According to the AMA, up to 10 percent of people who take dopamine for Parkinson’s develop a gambling addiction. “This drug is so harmful I’m trying to get the word out to people about what it does to you,” Neuls said.

One of the primary focuses of this conference: that gambling addiction is a chemical imbalance in the brain. “Gambling is typically known as the hidden addiction because unlike a substance abuse disorders, it’s difficult to easily see,” said Maya Chilese of the Nebraska Dept. of Health.

“People say, ‘Come on, who can’t stop gambling?’ People don’t understand that it’s a mental disorder, that it’s an addiction,” said Gary Gonder of the Missouri Lottery.

This addiction is fed by the dopamine released in the gambler’s brain, and casinos greet gamblers with a tsunami of sight and sound and sensation, which are all dopamine triggers.

If drugs can cause gambling addiction in people like Bob Neuls, maybe drugs can cure it too. There are many promising medications, but there isn’t one cure-all.

For now, gambling is largely treated not with drugs, but with therapy. The state of Missouri runs free treatment programs for problem gamblers; interestingly, they are underwritten by the state lottery.