Pathological gambling is associated with changes in the brain opioid system

New research has shown that the natural opioid system in the brains of pathological gamblers react differently to stimuli.

This fact may help explain why the love for gambling becomes an addiction.

A research group from the UK has studied gambling addiction, and reported that gambling is a rather common phenomenon. About 70% of the UK population gamble from time to time. However, about 0.6% of British adults - or about 300 thousand people – developed gambling out of control, receiving the addiction.

For their study, which the group presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Berlin, the researchers recruited 29 volunteers, 14 of which were pathological gamblers. During the research, they used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure the level of opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors mediate intercellular communication - like a lock, the key to which is a neurotransmitter, a chemical, such as endogenous opioids called endorphins.

The scientists have found no difference between the levels of receptors in pathological gamblers and non-gambling people. This does not occur to people with alcohol, heroin or cocaine dependence, they have an increased level of opioid receptors.

During the next stage of the study all the volunteers were given the drug on the basis of amphetamine, which releases endorphins (natural opiates), and repeated the study on PET.

Scans showed that the level of released endorphins of pathological gamblers was much lower than that of healthy people. Their level of euphoria was also lower.

"From our research we can conclude two things - says Dr. Inge Mick. - Firstly, the brain of a pathological gambler responds differently on this stimulation than normal human brain. Secondly, pathological gamblers do not get the same level of euphoria that ordinary people do. This explains why gambling becomes an addiction. "

The researchers also noted that it was the first study of dependence based on the opioid system with positron emission tomography.

  "Looking back at previous studies of other addictions, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, we expected that pathological gamblers will also increase the level of opioid receptors. Nevertheless, this did not happen. However, we found the expected change in endogenous opioids response to amphetamine stimulation. "

  "These data suggests the involvement of opioid system in the development of gambling addiction, and that this dependence is different from the chemical one, such as alcohol or drug. We hope that in the long term, these data will help us to develop a new approach to the treatment of gambling addiction. "

Source: European College of Neuropsychopharmacology