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Gamblers problems and gambling addicts: dopamine causes the difference in the way people gamble

The man imitates drug with playing card and tube made from money

In their pursuit of maximum profit, gamblers look for better strategies and new information. People with a gambling problem and gambling addicts do much less of that. And they stick much more to repeating actions that brought them success in the past. That’s what scientists Jan Peters, Anton Whieler and Karima Chakroun discovered in their research.

They reported their results two years ago. But recently, they reissued their report in a Journal of neuroscience. Because in several countries, problem gambling is back in the spotlight. For example, in England, where during the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of addictions among young people increased.

Play Difference

We find it particularly interesting that problem gamblers play differently than recreational gamblers. Surely this is remarkable. According to Anton Wiehler, dopamine probably plays a role here. This is the neurotransmitter (signal substance) in the brain that we encountered in previous studies. And that we know popularly as a reward hormone.

About one percent of men in countries with a gambling culture has a gambling problem. That, by the way, is a problem that for some time has been called a disorder, included in the handbook of psychiatric disorders. In that book, it is compared to addictive behaviour.

Dopamine and learning

When it comes to addiction, scientists think of the dopamine system in the brain. During gambling, the brain’s reward system releases more dopamine.

Because dopamine is important for the control and planning of actions, it affects learning processes. This plays a particular role in strategic learning processes, such as gambling.

The brain with dopamine activated zones thanks to gambling

Peters, Wiehler and Chakroun find problem gambling interesting. Especially because the addiction is not due to an external substance, as in the case of ingesting alcohol and narcotics, but due to activity.

The research goal

In their research, the biology psychologists looked at how gamblers plan their actions to achieve the highest possible profit. In other words, how they maximize their rewards. It should provide insight into how reinforcement learning works.

To do this, participants had to choose between already proven or new options to win as much as possible. While choosing, the researchers used equipment to measure the brain activity of the participants. In doing so, they looked especially at the brain areas that are important for processing rewards and planning actions.

The participants in the study

In order to ultimately conclude that problem gamblers play differently, those gamblers had to be part of the participants. To do this, the researchers selected 16 gambling addicts and 7 problem gamblers, all men. Most were also smokers but had no alcohol or drug addictions. This was verified with a urine sample.

In addition to this group of 23, they formed an equally large group of participants with recreational gambling experience. These were selected to create a group that matched the other group in age, education and so on.

To be sure of two distinguishable groups, the participants also had to complete a questionnaire.

The research experiment and results

The face looks like slot machine

Several methods have been developed in the past to research exploration, which is an active examination of new situations. One of these was recorded in a report by Nathaniel Daw and his team in 2006.

This method, the “four-armed bandit,” was used by Peters, Wiehler, and Chakroun in their research. In doing so, they only changed the fruit figures for coloured frames.

The method consists of decision-making tasks similar to slot machines. At each turn, there are four options, with the winnings changing gradually. In doing so, you as a participant/player can apply different strategies. For example, it can be the highest win of the last turn. But also the choice where the probability of winning is the most uncertain, but which allows for more profit.

The 46 participants won about the same amount of money, and also all showed some research on profit maximization. The group of gamblers, however, did so much less markedly than the control group of recreational gamblers. This was evident in measurements of brain activity and changes in brain regions, among other things.

More research on dopamine

In previous studies, researchers had already found that dopamine causes the difference in the way people gamble. This was done in some studies by having people ingest a chemical that increases dopamine levels. However, this did not provide real evidence that dopamine plays a role in reducing research on new strategies.

That evidence is one of the reasons Peters, Wiehler and Chakroun want to continue their research. Moreover, they can then see, for example, whether the change in decision making in gamblers is a risk factor or, on the contrary, a consequence of gambling a lot.

Centre for Advancement of Casino Technologies | Canada