Drug abuse is gradually changing the brain's reward circuit, but what does this information do on a casino site? Recent research shows that the brains of gambling addicts change in the same way.
It turns out that when a drug addict sees a white line, it gives him a pleasant feeling. The brain then produces the lucky hormone dopamine. The same hormone makes the brain of gambling addicts when they see a picture of a slot machine. Incidentally, an alcoholic has it when seeing an advertisement of a bottle of whiskey or another favorite beverage.
The addiction process
With the actual use of drugs, playing on the (physical or online) slot machine or putting the glass of drink to mouth comes the real reward. It consists of a warmth sensation, vision, relief or the feeling of being at the center of the universe. For a certain period, usually short, everything feels good.
After prolonged drug use, gambling or drinking, something changes in the brain. More and more is needed to get the same reward effect. And there must be sniffing, playing or drinking to have a somewhat normal feeling again. Because without it, the user, gambler or alcoholic feels depressed and sick.
That is when the gambling, sniffing and drinking becomes compulsive. The addict loses control of his behavior. They crave the product of their addiction (drugs, gambling etc), even after there is no reward (dopamine). Their habitual behavior is starting to harm their health, finances, and relationships.
Professor Eric J. Nestler of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas has been researching the influence of addiction on the brain for years. According to him, insight into the course of the addiction process can now lead to new treatment methods for addictions.
Brains of gambling addicts and others
Neurobiologists have known for a long time that the reward system causes the euphoria of drugs, gambling and the like. This system is a complex whole of nerve cells and neurons. It was once intended to survive, both by itself and in posterity. A good feeling after eating or having sex made us want to repeat it.
Recent research by Eric Nestler and others shows that the brains of gambling addicts and drug users are changing. The structure and function of the nerve cells or neurons of the reward system are weeks, months or even years after the last snuff, guess or gulp. unlike non-addicts.
Due to the changed functioning of the reward system, the pleasant effect of gambling, sniffing or drinking is reduced. And vice versa, they increase the craving for the subject of abuse. A destructive spiral of increasing use is created. As a result, for example, outages at work and at home.
Knowledge of these changes in the brains of gambling addicts and drug users should therefore lead to better help. They can gradually regain their normal brain functions and their lives.
Insight into the path to addiction started from laboratory research on animals about 40 years ago. For example, rats, mice and monkeys learned to operate levers. With one lever, they gave themselves a substance, such as heroin, that people also abuse. Another lever caused an uninteresting saline solution and a third was a request for food. The animals were addicted to the intoxicants within a few days.
Animals were found to react differently. They used to obtain the addictive substance instead of other activities such as eating and sleeping. Some even went on too long, causing them to die from exhaustion or malnutrition. To obtain the most addictive substances, most animals spent most of their waking time. Even when they had to pull a lever hundreds of times to get just a little bit of the dust occasionally.
What Nestler and colleagues explain in recent research confirms past research. For example, animals, and people, prefer an environment that they associate with earlier moments of pleasure. And it confirms the memory of pleasure.
When the subject of abuse is removed, work for chemical satisfaction stops. However, the pleasure of the dopamine flow is not forgotten. Rats no longer received dust for weeks, sometimes months. After they got a pinch of dust, they immediately started pulling the levers again. That also happened after they were placed in a cage that looked like the cage where they had previously received the addictive substance.
In primates, including humans, the reward system is more complex than in rats and mice. The system is connected to them with several brain areas. There is, for example, an area that makes a distinction between pleasant and unpleasant. This helps to make connections between previous experiences and signals that come from other sources at the same time.
The reward system can also determine the value of a reward. The more valuable an activity, the more likely it is that the activity will be repeated. And the better it is remembered, so that a repeat occurs when the opportunity presents itself.
Many research into gambling addiction focuses on the brain and the production of dopamine. There are, however, more and more scientists who think that you should look wider. According to them, the reward system is more than a brain area. In addition, there are scientists who think that you should not only look at the brains of gambling addicts, but also, for example, those of people who are not addicted to gambling. There are even people who wonder whether compulsive gambling is not just a (big) problem, rather than an addiction like drugs.