UBC discovery may lead to new treatment for problem gamblers

A new UBC study shows problem gamblers experience increased activity in their brain after looking at slot machines and roulette.

This area is the same part of the brain that lights up when drug addicts have cravings.

The findings published in Translational Psychiatry, suggest this part of the brain, known as the insula, is also involved in behavioural addictions. In addition, the study finds that treatments aimed at the insula could also treat people with gambling problems.

“This mysterious and poorly understood part of the brain has been identified as a key hub for craving in past research. For example, smokers who have sustained brain injuries affecting their insula have been found to be more likely to quit smoking,” said lead author Eve Limbrick-Oldfield, postdoctoral research fellow at the UBC department of psychology and Centre for Gambling Research. “Our study builds on those findings, showing that the insula is also involved in behavioural addictions like problem gambling.”

19 people with gambling disorder, a psychiatric term for serious gambling problems, were shown a series of gambling-related photos and neutral photos. The same photos were shown to a control group of 19 healthy volunteers. MRI brain scans were completed to assess their brain activities.

After the participants rated their craving level, the problem gamblers’ brain response to the gambling photos was compared with their brain response to the neutral photos. Researchers noted a higher level of craving after the gambling photos were shown.

Gambling cues also increased brain activity in parts of the frontal cortex and insula in problem gamblers. These areas are linked to craving and self-control in drug addiction.

Study co-author Luke Clark, psychology professor and director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, said the findings show cues play a major role in triggering cravings for problem gamblers.

“Everything from the lights and the sounds of the slot machines to the smell of the casino are cues that, even after years of abstinence from gambling, can trigger a craving,” said Clark. “Being able to control one’s response to these cues is a crucial part of avoiding relapse.”

Clark said the findings shed light on the potential for treating gambling disorder by targeting the insula and testing new treatments which could tone down the brain’s responses.

The researchers are examining the effectiveness of naltrexone, a medication used to treat alcohol and heroin addiction. These medications are used to change the brain responses in problem gamblers.