Gambling addiction and neuroscience with Dr Luke Clark

Gambling addiction and neuroscience with Dr Luke Clark


We know a lot about addiction, going back
forty or fifty years and that’s a field that’s
very much rooted in studying the pharmacology
of how addictive drugs work. So for example,
there is a story about dopamine there that’s
quite well developed now on how drugs abuse
hijack the dopamine system.
So, over the last five or ten years, there
has been a movement to studying these systems
in gamblers and people with gambling problems
and we can use a variety of different neuroscience
methods for doing that. We do some work with
PET imaging to look at the dopamine system.
We do other work with functional magnetic
resonance imaging where we are looking at
brain responses while the gamblers play different
tasks and this work is starting to come together
to make what a coherent story now. Certainly,
we can see that problem gambling does have
a genetic contribution there and we know that
for example from twins studies, looking at
the identical twins of problem gamblers. We
can see higher than average rates of gambling
problems in the co-twin. Now that overlap
is not 100% by any means. It is probably by
a 30 or 40 per cent genetic contribution.
We know that the environment is also important
and for example early exposure to gambling
and adverse childhoods are also important
determinants here. As in a lot of psychiatry,
it is a mixture of both its genes and environment
combination.
What we can say, we can see during decision-making
tasks a brain response to winning money for
example, so an outcome response to winning,
and this is a system in the brain that responds
to a range of different positive rewarding
stimuli that we often call that the ‘brain
reward system’.
So as well as to responding to money, it would
respond to natural rewards like chocolate
or like sexual stimuli and this is also the
same system that is then targeted by drugs
of abuse as well. So we can measure these
responses in humans. We know the that areas
we expect to see activated in the brain and
then we can look at how those responses differ
in groups of people with a gambling problem.
It is a really important question how the
neuroscience feeds into the policy and that’s
actually been one of the topics of debate
at the meeting. We’ve had a special session
on exactly that. I think it creates awareness
of that effect and it shows sort of objective
marker of that effect in terms of brain activity.
We can also think about that feeding back
into treatment as well as for example in terms
of psychological treatments acting to change
the processing of near misses and correcting
other gambling distortions. And we can also
think in jurisdictions about how near misses
occur in games and the many different ways
in which they occur and whether we can sort
of tighten the legislation there.

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