Researchers discovered for the first time that the brains of gambling addicts may have different structures than those of the rest of the population.
While previous research explored the neural basis of behavioral inhibition, no studies to date have found links between brain structure and pathological gambling. But team at the Yale School of Medicine used brain scanning to measure the sizes of the amygdala and hippocampus — two regions typically associated with behavioral inhibition — in both individuals with and without gambling problems, finding smaller volumes among gamblers. According to study co-author and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Marc Potenza, the findings may help researchers and clinicians develop treatments for gambling addiction.
“We believe in order to develop more effective therapies for people with gambling problems it’s important to understand the biological underpinnings, because those may be effectively targeted through different interventions,” Potenza said.
Using MRI imaging, the study compared the sizes of the amygdala and hippocampus between 32 pathological gamblers and 47 healthy controls. The researchers found that the gambling addicts have smaller hippocampuses and amygdalas than the control group. In addition, the gambling addicts also scored lower on a self-reported measure of behavioral inhibition.
Potenza said the study’s findings align with a growing body of evidence that suggests pathological gambling is a type of addiction: Previous research has found similar differences in brain structure between drug addicts and non-drug users. Potenza added that the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists gambling disorder as an addiction, while previous versions of the manual did not.
While previous studies have linked hippocampal and amygdalar volumes and ability to regulate behavior, Jiansong Xu, study co-author and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said he was surprised to find the same result with gambling addicts.
Potenza also said this data, in combination with other research, could lead to the development of better pharmacological treatments or therapies to help treat gambling addicts.
However, Xu said the promise of accessing the hippocampus and amygdala with drugs may be limited. Mindful meditation may be more effective, he said.
“I don’t think we can do very much,” Xu said. “We can’t inject medicine into the hippocampus.”
Potenza said further research needs to be done on the co-occurrence of other health problems, such as alcoholism or depression, with gambling addiction in order to fully understand the implications of the study.
The study was published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in February.