The latest research shows that pathological gambling can result in an altered opioid system in the brain, and there is a link between this activity and the way that the brain of the compulsive gambler responds. UK researchers believe that this may show why compulsive gambling leads to addiction. The study and results were presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Berlin. The study involved 29 participants, 15 who were healthy and who did not have a problem with compulsive gambling as well as 14 participants who were already pathological gamblers. PET scans were used to measure the levels of opioid receptors in the brain of the study participants. The results showed that compulsive gambling did not increase the level of opioid receptors in the brain, unlike addiction to heroin and other drugs where there are more opioid receptors with addiction to the substance.
While the pathological gambling study showed an altered opioid system in the brain the changes were not due to an increase in the opioid receptors in the brain tissue. Each study participant was then given a tablet of amphetamine to release endorphins in the brain. The compulsive gamblers released a lower amount of endorphins than the healthy volunteers did. According to Dr. Inge Mick who led the research study “From our work, we can say two things. Firstly, the brains of pathological gamblers respond differently to this stimulation than the brains of healthy volunteers. And secondly, it seems that pathological gamblers just don’t get the same feeling of euphoria as do healthy volunteers. This may go some way to explaining why the gambling becomes an addiction.”
Inge continued by saying “Looking at previous work on other addictions, such as alcoholism, we anticipated that pathological gamblers would have increased opiate receptors, which we did not find, but we did find the expected blunted change in endogenous opioids from an amphetamine challenge. These findings suggest the involvement of the opioid system in pathological gambling and that it may differ from addiction to substances such as alcohol. We hope that in the long run this can help us to develop new approaches to treat pathological gambling.”