Money over Sex? Inside the Mind of a Pathological Gambler

Ben Kurtz

I’m sure many of you have heard the old saying that “gambling is paying for excitement”. While this may be true for the average person, pathological gamblers may be driven by different motives. Some in the neurological community (Garavan et al., 2000) believe that pathological gamblers do not feel gratification from normal rewards (food, sex, etc.) as strongly as healthy people and that this drives them to gamble excessively. However, new research (Sescousse, 2013) shows that this may not be the case. Researchers indicated to participants if they were about to receive a cash or erotic (sexual image) reward. They then measured the brain activity of the participants (half of whom were pathological gamblers) and compared the two groups. The results showed that pathological gamblers had less brain activity in response to sexual images. In response to monetary rewards, pathological gamblers showed brain activity in the region that processes primal rewards (food, sex) AND in the region that processes complex (long-term) rewards while normal individuals only showed brain activity in the region that processes complex rewards. Additionally, researchers monitored brain activity when the reward was revealed to participants. The monetary rewards varied in dollar amount and the erotic rewards varied in sexual explicitness. Surprisingly, there was no discernible difference between pathological gamblers and control subjects during the reward presentation phase of the experiment. These results suggest that pathological gamblers’ behavior may be driven by an inability to distinguish between monetary and non-monetary rewards. Drug addicts have also been shown to have less brain activity in response to non-drug related rewards (Goldstein et al., 2007). The similarities in brain activity between pathological gamblers and drug addicts indicates that they could be used to study each other. It is also worth noting that studies of pathological gamblers allow us to research addictive behavior without having mind-altering drugs influence the results of the study. There is much work to be done before we will truly understand the causes of pathological gambling and addiction but studies like this one suggest that reward processing malfunctions may play a critical role in addictive behavior.


References: Sescousse, Guillaume, Guillaume Barbalat, Philippe Domenech, and Jean-Claude Dreher. “Imbalance in the sensitivity to different types of rewards in pathological gambling.” Brain 136, no. 8 (2013): 2527-2538.

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