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An addictive thrill
MGH study finds gambling, cocaine affect same region of brain
By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 5/24/2001
Scientists don't need to visit the crowded Foxwoods casinos to prove that
people get high on gambling - especially when they win.
Now, they've got brain scans showing that gambling activates the same
regions of the brain as snorting cocaine.
A new study at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that a common mental
circuitry - involving six small regions in the middle of the head -
lights up during these two activities and may help ultimately explain
''We cannot distinguish any difference between the brain pattern of
someone while gambling or ingesting cocaine,'' said Dr. Hans Breiter, a
neuroscientist at Mass. General who previously monitored the brains of
cocaine users. ''And whatever areas are involved in addiction affect
The gambling study, published in today's issue of the journal Neuron,
also shows that even the hope of a big win increased the blood flow to
this region of the brain. Breiter said the research has implications far
beyond addiction research.
In the future, companies might not have to rely on what consumers said
when asked if they liked red or black sports cars. They could know
through brain scans.
''Imagine the implications for marketing,'' Breiter said. ''This opens up
the field of preference.''
His work is part of the expanding area of brain research that targets the
human response to everything from romance to religion. Breiter's work,
done with Mass. General colleagues, as well as scientists at Princeton
University and Concordia University in Montreal, helps draw a line around
those brain regions that may be involved in intense emotion, rewards, and
addiction, and lead to new treatments.
In the case of gambling, many people may benefit from this kind of
research: In Massachusetts alone, roughly 250,000 people are believed to
have a moderate gambling problem, such as losing a significant amount of
money for their budget or suffering an emotional setback from betting,
state officials said. About 70,000 state residents are believed to be
''compulsive'' gamblers who would sacrifice food and shelter just to
gamble. Therapists hope that new treatment will go beyond the Gamblers
Anonymous self-help groups.
''All of this research advances our knowledge of the biological
mechanisms involved in various addictions,'' said Dr. Paul Laffer, who
runs a gambling addiction program at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.
''Perhaps new drugs will be developed as a result and become a piece of
Studying this region of the brain may also lead to insights about drug
abuse. Breiter and others say drug addicts may have a faulty brain
mechanism linked to judging life's rewards, and see cocaine or heroin as
offering more reward than a meal.
Breiter's study monitored the brain activities of 12 ordinary adult men,
between the ages of 20 and 35 with no history of gambling problems.
Through a process called high-field functional magnetic resonance
imaging, the researchers mapped the brain activity of the volunteers as
they participated in a game of chance.
Each was given $50, and, in 12-second intervals, was shown a computer
image of one of three spinners, each offering monetary wins or losses.
There were three kinds of spinners: the ''good'' offered mostly winning
opportunities, up to $10; the ''bad'' offered mostly losses, up to $6;
and the ''intermediate'' was a mixed bag. The volunteers knew from the
beginning of each turn when they stood mostly to gain, or lose, or faced
During the experiment, volunteers registered more intense reactions when
shown the ''good'' spinner, even when the pointer hadn't landed on a
result yet. And of course, the volunteers had a more intense reaction if
they got a big win.
But there was also an intense reaction when the ''bad wheel'' ended up
with a nominal or no loss, illustrating the benefits of low expectations.
If the volunteer lost little when he feared losing a lot, they interpret
the result as ''a gain,'' showing the brain plays a role in assessing a
relatively good outcome.
Breiter said he and his colleagues hope to be able in the years to come
to distinguish the exact role of each of the six brain regions involved
in rewards or pleasures. He said some probably have more to do with
creating response, while others help rank preferences.
Researchers say this type of research can be a baseline for future
research on addicted gamblers. Do compulsive gamblers show more intense
activation in pleasure areas? Are they unable to think rationally about
gains and losses?
''We'll want to know if we can see reliable differences in brain
responses of the addicted,'' said co-author Peter Shizgal, director of
the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia University.
Ultimately, Breiter believes this reward area of the brain can explain
the very foundation of human behavior.
''This circuitry is at the core of everything we do,'' he said. ''It's
the information backbone for motivation.''
Patricia Wen can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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