Fwd: An addictive thrill

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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
    addictive behavior.

    ''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
    these regions.''

    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
    treatment.''

    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
    mixed possibilities.

    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 wen@globe.com.

    This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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