The Impact of Gambling on the Brain: Exploring Potential Effects
Gambling can affect how your brain works. Aside from personal reasons, chemicals also trigger one’s gambling addiction.
During the 1999 NCRG Conference in Gambling and Addiction, Dr. Alan Leshner said, “Addiction is a brain disease — and it matters.” Chemicals that trigger addiction, not just gambling, are serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids. Stress and stress hormones can also be a factor in how gambling can affect your brain.
So for this blog post, we will discuss these chemicals and how a vice can change a brain’s functions.
Gambling, especially when winning, is a joyous experience, said Gambler’s Help. Thus, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine upon feeling any pleasure.
Sometimes, a large amount of dopamine is released quickly into the brain, creating an abnormally high level of happiness. But when it becomes a habit of constantly releasing high dosages of this chemical, the gambler develops tolerance to it.
As a result, the person will not feel that same joy or happiness unless the body secretes a higher dosage of dopamine. To achieve that, they will have to gamble more, and the cycle will continue.
Although the player develops immunity to the chemical, the brain can recall past feelings from waging. Like your body clock, it becomes part of your daily routine. This is why quitting the habit becomes difficult due to constant gambling reminders from your body.
Several studies proved that impulse control disorders like gambling are caused by a condition called serotonergic dysfunction. According to the book “Gambling and the Brain,” serotonin is “implicated in emotion, mood, and cognition.”
Low levels of this chemical have been observed to result:
- Desire to meet their gambling needs is increased
- Inhibition or reward processing is impaired
- Or both.
In short, individuals with serotonergic dysfunction cannot control their desires and want to satisfy their urges in any way possible.
Endogenous opioids are “opiate-like substances,” like endorphins, that act as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are responsible for the person’s well-being and pain tolerance.
However, according to Dackis and O’Brien’s 2005 research, people with an altered opioidergic system will struggle to control their desires. This is due to the intense “euphoric feelings experienced after engaging in rewarding behaviors.”
Gambling can be very rewarding, making it addictive. If not controlled, the habit can alter that person’s opioidergic system, making it harder to control the desire to bet.
Brain imaging data showed that when a monetary reward is involved, parts of the brain’s limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex have higher activity levels. A higher sensory and limbic activation have been observed with increased risks and rewards.
The limbic system is the part of the brain that “facilitates memory storage and retrieval, establishing emotional states, and links the conscious, intellectual functions of the cerebral cortex with the unconscious, autonomic functions of the brain stem.”
It is also “highly interconnected with the nucleus accumbens, a collection of neurons that has been proposed to function as the brain’s ‘pleasure center’ and play an important role in reward, pleasure, addiction, aggression, and fear.”
On the other hand, the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that acts as the decision-maker, impulsivity, and cognitive controller. Both brain parts, especially among gamblers, are reactive regarding gambling cues. If paired with high levels of serotonin or endogenous opioids, their decision-making will be affected, and they would ignore “negative consequences” to obtain “immediate gratification.”
If you or someone you know is considered a compulsive or pathological gambler, fret not. There are ways to treat the addiction and exhume your body of such habit:
- For abnormal serotonin levels, Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), more commonly known as antidepressants, can be one way to return it to normal. Naltrexone or nalmefene for endogenous opioids is also effective for pathological gambling.
- Gambling addiction can also be considered a mental health problem. Thus, psychotherapy has been proven to retrain the brain to avoid betting.
- Seek help from self-help groups or even from your government. In the Philippines, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Authority (PAGCOR) adopted the self-exclusion program, which helps gamblers take a break from playing by prohibiting them from any casinos for a specific period.
There is a cure for gambling addiction. With the advancement in medicine, there are now ways to treat this problem.
The government also looks out for the well-being of bettors. Self-exclusion programs and rehabilitation centers have been established to help individuals who need help.
It all boils down to the person’s desire to be better and cured. But there is no better cure than prevention, which is why at OKBet, to “game responsibly” is encouraged.
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