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?


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

Ancestry, Addiction, and trauma – Addiction research into genetic differences based on race

We all know that drug use and drug related crimes are a big problem within African American communities. It’s not a secret, but it can be interpreted very differently by different people. Do the differences between African Americans and Americans from European descent mean that Black people are simply meant to have more problems?

A recent study suggests that at least when it comes to addictions, the opposite might be true.

A genetic study of addiction and ancestry

Researchers at the New Jersey VA (Veterans’ Affairs) office collected data from 407 addicted African American patients as well as from 457 comparison participants at a local hospital’s ophthalmology clinic. Like in most studies of this nature, both groups was screened for other psychiatric problems and participants from the control group were excluded from the study if they showed any signs of addiction problems themselves.

The researchers then used 186 different genetic markers that relate to ancestry to determine the proportion of African, European, and Asian descent for each participant. After following this up with some questionnaires about childhood trauma and an estimations of participant socioeconomic status (things like income, education, age, etc.), the researchers ran analyses to see if African ancestry was related to drug problems, childhood trauma, and poverty.

The ancestry of the participants was verified to be mostly (average 80%) African, with European, Middle East, and Central Asia contributing between 5% and 7% more.

What did they find?

Addiction research about race and genetics - The proportion of African ancestry among the different groupsThe first interesting finding was the fact that patients with alcohol, cocaine, or opiate dependence had lower proportion of African ancestry than non addicted individuals. The differences ranged from 5% to 3% but certainly reached significance levels. Since its already known that Europeans are more likely to show alcohol, but not drug, problems, the researchers checked to see if that was the factor responsible for the difference – it wasn’t.

Interestingly, even though childhood abuse or neglect were very much related to addiction in this sample (as we’ve talked about before), there was no relationship between African Ancestry and abuse or neglect.In fact, the two factors that were almost significant (childhood physical and sexual abuse) showed trends similar to those for addiction – African descent was associated with lower problems in those areas.

The final, and not surprising finding, had to do with an association between African ancestry and lower socioeconomic status. The differences in these categories were significant for income and education. This finding can almost serve as a validity check on the whole experiment, since census data has long shown lower SES for African Americans in the united States.

What does this all mean?

Okay, I know this isn’t necessarily the easiest study to understand, so let’s break it down:

Given the known drug problems among African Americans, the researchers wanted to know if African descent could have something to do with underlying genetic factors that make it more likely that Black individuals will end up as drug addicts. There are a host of genetic differences between Europeans, Asians, and Africans, and this was a way to get at a lot of them in one shot. The problem is that African Americans are also poorer than many European Americans, and since poverty is a known risk-factor for addiction, meaning it makes it more likely that someone will end up an addict, the researchers were interested in separating the two. They threw trauma in because it, like poverty, has already been shown to be related to addiction.

The results seemed to indicate that the two factors (poverty and addiction) as indeed separate. While African descent was associated with more poverty, it was actually found to be associated with less drug, and alcohol problems. This suggests that it’s the poverty, and all the factors associated with it, that may be driving the higher addiction rates among African Americans and not some predisposition to drug problems.

The good news is that this suggests that efforts at improving the SES and quality of life for African Americans in the United States will indeed lower their substance abuse rates. In fact, when it comes down to it, this research suggests that European Americans are the ones we need to watch for in terms of genetic risk for addiction.

As always, limitations

As usual, we need to remember that these are associations and don’t prove causality. Also, given the very specific sample used (veteran addicts), the results should be replicated in other populations. Lastly, remember that the ancestry-based differences weren’t huge, but given the fact that this was a strictly African American sample, that’s probably part of the package. Again, more research with  broader populations should help to resolve that.


Francesca Ducci, Alec Roy, Pei-Hong Shen,Qiaoping Yuan, Nicole P. Yuan,  Colin A. Hodgkinson, Lynn R. Goldman, and David Goldman (2009). Association of Substance Use Disorders With Childhood Trauma but not African Genetic Heritage in an African American Cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry, 166, 1031-1040.

Maybe its not all about friends: Parents, race, alcohol, and drug abuse

contributing author: Gacia Tachejian

Have you ever asked yourself where it is that kids learn about drug use? Parents have long been known to protect their young ones from “bad” influences from outside, but a recent study at Yale shows that a major source influence still exists within the home.

Interestingly, the researchers, headed by Dr. William R. Corbin, found that family drinking patterns affected kids of different ethnicities differently. The researchers collected web questionnaires from over 2000 young adults to assess the influence of family drinking, social-group drinking, and thoughts about drinking on the actual behavior of entering freshmen.

Friend Vs family – Racial differences

Keg PartyAs usual, peer influence was found to be the strongest predictor of the participants’ actual drinking (in terms of average drinks per day, and frequency of drinking), accounting for almost half of the overall drinking behavior. However, the peer influence was much stronger for White participants than for Latino ones. On the other hand, family drinking habits were twice as important in affecting Latino kids’ drinking as White kids’ behavior.

The difference in the source of the influence helps explain the gender gap in drinking that exists among Latinos. While White men and women seem to drink about equally, among Latinos, drinking is much more common in men than in women. Young Latina women probably learn early on that drinking is much more acceptable among men and that they are expected to drink less. This is not to undermine the importance of social-group drinking among the Latino participants here, which still accounted for the lion’s share of the alcohol consumption, even in this group.

How does this help us?

The important issue here is in determining which interventions might be most effective in reducing drinking. Obviously, family-based interventions would be less likely to help among the White kids in this sample, though they most likely would reduce drinking among Latino kids.

Overall, the results seem to suggest that one of the major sources of influence on drinking behavior, and most likely drug-using behavior, is still found within the home. This is especially true when considering the larger picture, given that even a child’s peers are influenced by their own parents…