One of the most frightening aspects of addiction is the sense of dependency, as well as the symptoms of withdrawal. Many Hollywood movies have made us familiar with the image of a sweaty and shivering drug addict, desperately trying to avoid relapsing into use. We are left with the important question: why are some people able to avoid relapse while others continually fall back into their destructive habits? The conclusion we often come to is that people who relapse must somehow be weaker or less moral, and they are often met with contempt rather than sympathy. However, recent research suggests that there may be another factor at play that can help explain likelihood of relapse.
A recent study from the University of British Columbia examined the interaction between an individual’s tendency to gamble and their addictive behaviors. Researchers developed a gambling task for rats where they had a limited amount of time to collect food pellets. The rats were given four food trays to choose from, two of which gave small but consistent numbers of food pellets and two of which give large but infrequent rewards. The repeated choice of the large but rare rewards parallels human gambling behaviors, and it allows researchers to assess a rat’s risk proneness. The rats were then allowed to self administer cocaine for ten days, and were then able to gamble again. The results of the retest found that although both the risk prone and risk adverse rats displayed an increase in risky behavior while taking cocaine, the increase was greater for the risk prone rats. Interestingly there was no difference in the amount of cocaine that the rats were taking. This suggests that the same amounts of cocaine may have greater effects on risk prone individuals.
The rats were then cut off from cocaine for 30 days, and they were observed for signs of withdrawal and relapse, such as attempts to take cocaine. Overall, the rats that were risk prone showed more signs of withdrawal and relapse. Additionally, the rats that gambled the most while using cocaine also showed the most symptoms of withdrawal.
The results of this study are important because they suggest that one of the biggest predictors of relapse could be the tendency for favoring risky behaviors such as gambling. The exact relationship between gambling and addiction is still uncertain, however this study suggests that the causes of gambling and addiction likely overlap. Although people who gamble are not destined to become drug addicts, it seems possible that gamblers may share physiological similarities with addicts. As such, risk prone individuals should be more careful with their use of substances because it seems likely that they have a greater potential to develop and maintain addiction.
Ferland, J.-M. N., and Winstanley, C. A. (2017) Risk-preferring rats make worse decisions and show increased incubation of craving after cocaine self-administration. Addiction Biology, 22: 991–1001. doi: 10.1111/adb.12388.