Gambling it all away? The connection between gambling and drug addiction

Screaming in the last 10 seconds of a football game, the score is neck and neck, and your team has the ball on the 20 yard line. Needless to say your heart is beating like crazy in anticipation to see the outcome. Would it be beating any harder if you had money riding on the outcome? A recent study has shown that when it comes to gambling, the excitatory aspects are heightened when there is something to be won, no matter what game you’re playing, or the outcome (1).

Gambling’s more exciting when there’s money on the line

Recent work by researchers at SUNY Albany, discovered that in the last 30 seconds of a horse race and the following 30 seconds after the completion of a race, heart rate (HR) rises significantly more in individuals who think they will personally benefit from the race. The HR of those who lost money still rises after learning the outcome of the race—surprisingly just as much as those who won money. So whether you win or lose money in the race, your heart rate still goes up, which may provide a signal from the body that drives the continuation of gambling behavior.

Seems strange right? Win or lose, as long as you bet money on the game your body is going to become more excited about it. Still, when questioned afterwards, individual’s rated their experience as more exciting only if they won money. That, in fact, was the only difference between the men and women in the study. Women rated their subjective excitement higher even for lower winning rates (in this study $2, and $7), whereas men only said they were excited for the highest amount ($15).

How does gambling become addictive?

You become addicted to drugs because of chemicals that change your body and brain in specific ways that make you want more (see a past post here). Gambling doesn’t involve putting chemicals in your body, so how can you become addicted to it?
When you gamble, actual changes occur in your brain, just as they occur with drugs. Though gambling may not put chemicals in your body directly, it does affect the same class of chemicals that become altered by the intake of drugs. It all goes back to the reward pathway in the brain and neurotransmitters like dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Whether a good experience or a bad one, the effect on the brain can apparently get some people to the point where they lose control over their betting, win or lose.

The question is: Why can’t you just play the same games without getting in debt?

Betting money creates a heightened excitement by the release of the reward-related neurotransmitters. That feeling of reward becomes associated with all the other surrounding stimuli (i.e. bright lights and sounds of casinos or screaming fans) and Bam! Here comes trouble (see my post about cravings here). As long as the gambling is sometimes paired with an actual win, the arousal from the situation as a whole (even while losing) will continue to create the desired effect. In fact, inconsistent rewarding, and especially the kind that can’t be predicted, produces the strongest, hardest to shake kind of learning. This is why casinos program slot machines (their biggest gambling money maker) to win one out of every five draws o average – it keeps people coming back for more. Every one of those unexpected wins pushes up dopamine levels in the brain making it more likely that you’ll go back for more…

Sound familiar?

Citation:

Wulfert, Franco, Williams, Roland, and Hatley Maxson (2008). The Role of Money in the Excitement of Gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22, 380-390.

The brain-addiction connection: Cocaine, dopamine, and more

Okay, so we’ve covered how the brain’s neurons communicate with one another normally; now let’s learn about how drugs mess things up to produce their specific effects. Since the brain-addiction relationship is different for different drugs, we’ll do this one by one, starting with cocaine:

Cocaine

One of the most commonly abused drugs, cocaine interrupts a molecule in the brain that’s responsible for clearing away the dopamine that is released during normal functioning (it’s called DAT). Like I’d said before, neurons talk to each other by releasing these neurotransmitter molecules to transmit impulses from one to another.

Imagine for a second that every time you spoke, the sound of your voice would continue on, reverberating endlessly. By the time each of us would be done uttering our first sentence, the world would be a mess of unintelligible sounds, echoing forever. This wouldn’t make for a very effective way of communicating.

Sound loses energy as it travels through air, eventually having so little energy that it no longer moves enough air to be audible. This keeps each word distinct and meaningful. In the brain, the individual messages between neurons are similarly kept distinct up by a number of processes.

These include dissipation, chemical breakdown, and reuptake.

Let’s learn more about these processes

Dissipation is a process similar to the story with air and sound, as the molecules move around, their concentration gets lower, and they become less likely to activate anything.

Chemical breakdown does is exactly what it sounds like, chemicals breaking the neurotransmitters down so they can no longer activate anything.

Reuptake is a more complicated process of recycling. Instead of letting all those precious chemicals go to waste, the brain recycles them so they can be used again later. Cocaine blocks the molecule that makes this reuptake process (for dopamine) possible. It’s a small molecule that carries the cocaine back into the cell that released it. Cocaine wedges itself in place of the dopamine (see picture below) and therefore deactivates it.

Dopamine Transport Molecule

What does cocaine’s action result in?

The result is that since it can’t be as efficiently cleaned up, dopamine ends up hanging around the brain for longer than it’s supposed to. Because dopamine is one of the brain’s main “pleasure”, or “positive” signaling molecules, users of cocaine feel better than they would otherwise as a result of this extra dopamine.

This doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, does it? Reuptake is a small price to pay for feeling a high that is almost “naturally produced” (some of the brain’s own dopamine hanging around for longer than it should). The problem is, that like in anything else, for every action, there’s a reaction…

What happens when cocaine in taken for a long time?

Faced with increasing amounts of dopamine, the brain starts adjusting in these ways:

  • It starts out by producing and releasing less dopamine, because as far as it’s concerned, the balance has been interrupted.
  • The number of receptors available to bind with dopamine is also reduced.
  • Next, it starts turning up brain systems that are supposed to counteract the actions of dopamine in order to once again, adjust for the increased levels.

Overall, these are some of the reasons for the “come down” or, after effects of a heavy night of cocaine use.

Over time, many of these changes become long lasting, resulting in a whole set of undesirable effects for the user, including withdrawal, mood problems, as well as some serious problems with thinking and control over behavior.

Not to be ignored are the effects that cocaine use, and the good feelings it initially brings along, have on motivation and normal reward functioning and learning in the brain; but we’ll get to that in another lesson…

Question of the day:
Does the above explanation of how cocaine works help you make sense of the effects it has? Could you see how these effects would possibly bring about addictive, rather than recreational, use?

The brain-addiction connection : Neurons and neurotransmitters

As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, while many people experiment with, or use, drugs at some point in their lives, only a small percentage (between 10%-15%) develop chronic drug abuse and dependence problems. While some of the specifics of what makes one person more likely to move from recreational use to addiction are still being investigated and hotly debated, we do know quite a lot about what happens in the brain when drug are used.

Before I can go into the specifics of the brain-addiction connection…

We need a little background on the way the brain works:

The neuron

The brain is in essence a very complex network of interconnected fibers (neurons) and their maintenance and support structures. The brain contains about 10,000,000,000,000 (10 trillion) of these cells, and they each make many connections.

The left end of the neuron in the picture on the right is called the dendrite; this is the neuron’s main information receiving hub. The long part extending to the right is called an axon, and it ends in axon terminals that eventually connect to other neurons’ dendrites.

This is the basic way in which everything that happens in the brain is communicated, including our thoughts, feelings, movements, and memories!!! Dendrite to axon, to axon terminals, to dendrites, and back to step 1. How this transmission is achieved within the neuron is not necessary for this discussion; let’s just say that you should eat your bananas and make sure you always have some potassium, sodium, and calcium in your body…

How do the neurons talk to one another?

Neurotransmitters

What is important for us is the way these neurons transfer information across the gap between the axon terminals and their connecting dendrites. This is achieved by chemicals called neurotransmitters. There are quite a few of these, but the main ones we’re going to be concerned with are serotonin, adrenaline, GABA, and dopamine as these are some of the major players in drug addiction (especially dopamine).

When a neuron wants to send a signal to its neighbor, it releases packets of a neurotransmitter (most axon terminals release only one specific neurotransmitter), and these are received by specialized receptors at the dendrites of the receiving neuron. If enough neurotransmitter is released and enough receptors are activated, the signal starts again and the cycle continues…

Neurotrasnmitters and drug use

Most abused drugs disrupt some combination of factors within this mechanism to produce both the intended, and unintended, effects they are known for.

Alright, that’s probably enough to absorb for now, more on what specific drugs do to interrupt this process soon!

Question:
How many of you knew about the ways in which drugs affect the brain? Would you mind sharing the things you’ve learned and where you’d learned them?