An international study into gambling addiction has found evidence to suggest that gambling addiction activates the same brain pathways as drug and alcohol cravings, paving the way for potential future treatments.

The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and involved researchers from Imperial College London, University of British Columbia and University of Cambridge.

Working with the National Problem Gambling Clinic, scientists studied 19 patients with gambling addiction (most commonly sports betting and electronic roulette) and 19 healthy volunteers.

Through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), participants' brain activity was scanned while being shown various images, including pictures of gambling scenes such as a betting shop or roulette wheel.

Scientists found that in problem gamblers, the insula and nucleus accumbens parts of the brain were highly active when they were shown an image associated with gambling, and experienced a craving. The team also found that weaker connections between the nucleus accumbens and an area called the frontal lobe in problem gamblers were associated with greater craving.

According to Professor Anne Lingford-Hughes, co-author from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, the frontal lobe, which is involved in decision-making, may help keep the insula in-check by controlling impulses.

"Weak connections between these regions have also been identified in drug addiction," Professor Lingford-Hughes explained. "The frontal lobe can help control impulsivity, therefore a weak link may contribute to people being unable to stop gambling, and ignoring the negative consequences of their actions. The connections may also be affected by mood – and be further weakened by stress, which may be why gambling addicts relapse during difficult periods in their life.”

Professor Lingford-Hughes added that monitoring activity and connections in the insula and nucleus accumbens in gambling addicts may not only help medics assess effectiveness of a treatment, but may also help prevent relapse – a common problem in addiction.

"This work provides vital clues into the biology of gambling addiction, which is still largely unknown," said Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, co-author from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

"We know the condition may have a genetic component – and that the children of gambling addicts are at higher risk of gambling addiction themselves – but we still don’t know the exact parts of the brain involved. This research identifies key brain areas, and opens avenues for targeted treatments that prevent cravings and relapse."

The findings of the study were published Tuesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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