Gambling is more accessible than ever before, whether it’s scratch cards and the lotter or online casino games and sports betting and on sites like timeform you can do horse racing betting. For most people, it’s nothing more than a recreational activity that makes events more exciting, but there is a definite effect that gambling has on the brain that is akin to the effect of drugs or alcohol in terms of how easy it is to become addicted to gambling.
From brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests, scientists have been able to ascertain the impact that gambling has on each of us and how it affects our brain when we’re in the process of placing bets. There are similarities with the way that gambling impacts the brain compared to substance abuse, as well as the way the brain responds to cues and the way that gambling activates the brain’s reward system.
The Ventral Striatum
Gambling impacts two key parts of the brain that affect the emotions and feelings we have when we gamble. The ventral striatum is situated deep within the brain and is our reward centre. As gambling becomes more of an addiction, this area’s activity becomes diminished and less active during the anticipation of a win or monetary rewards. Scientists believe that this is because the reward pathways can seem counterintuitive to problem gamblers in that people prone to addiction have underactive reward systems in the brain so are constantly seeking more intense ways of stimulating these pathways.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is also implicated when gambling, which is the part of the brain that’s involved in controlling impulsivity, decision-making and cognitive control. Again, in regular people these areas of the brain light up when we gamble but become less activated in problem gamblers as they respond less to gambling-related cues. This is believed to be because the prefrontal cortex plays a role in the evaluation of rewards and how people make decisions surrounding a small reward immediately or a larger reward later on, which problem gamblers struggle to navigate and control. There have also been studies that show that people who gamble may be more impulsive than those who don’t, which suggests that they may have more difficulty controlling their impulses, to different degrees, due to the reduced activation of the prefrontal cortex.
The More We Gamble, The Less Responsive We Become
Studies show that the more we get involved with gambling to a problem or addictive level, the less responsive our brains become to the thrill and excitement that gambling provides. In other words, people become accustomed to the high they get from gambling at a certain stage, so they need to gamble on bigger or riskier things. There may even be inherent differences in the structure and function of the brain in people who develop a problem with gambling and those who continue to just enjoy it recreationally. The differences in the brain that occur based on gambling are fascinating and show how betting provides the thrill and adrenalin-rush that we associate with gambling based on the parts of the brain it ignites.