Sex or Money — What Turns Your Brain On?

Callie Clibanoff

Flashing lights, booze, risk, money- many visit Vegas to partake in the risky fun of gambling.


Will you win the jackpot, lose everything, or have “The Hangover” experience and remember nothing?


Cassie3For most, gambling is a harmless activity, but for some, it is a compulsive addiction.  Nearly 3% of American adults are pathological gamblers who cannot stop gambling despite serious consequences including loss of jobs, failed relationships, and severe debt. (National Research Council (US) Committee, 1999).Cassie4


Prior research (Comings and Blum, 2000; Volkow et al., 2002) has suggested pathological gambler’s “reward system” is relatively flat; life is not as much of a buzz for them so they seek intensely rewarding experiences, like gambling, to compensate. Another theory suggests the reward system for gamblers may be hypersensitive to the highs of gambling: the bright lights and the noises of casinos create intense cravings to gamble, which then takes priority over other life experiences. Sescousse ( investigated a different hypothesis:  Are compulsive gamblers overly sensitive to monetary rewards, and thus have a blunted sensitivity to non-monetary rewards like alcohol and sex?

“Pathological gamblers aren’t just addicted to money, their brains are actually more, if you will, ‘turned on’ by monetary rewards and ‘turned off’ by erotic rewards,” says Sescousse*.

Cassie6To test this, he recruited 20 healthy individuals and 18 pathological gamblers who prior to the experiment reported they viewed money and sex equally. The subjects were then asked to lay inside a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to record brain activity during a task in which they would se a picture portraying both the type of reward (money/erotic picture) and intensity (high or low cash reward/high or low erotic content). They then had to press a button as fast as they could to receive the reward they preferred.

And what happened exactly?…



The pathological gamblers pushed the button faster to win a monetary reward over the erotic reward, despite previously reporting they viewed the rewards equally. One brain region involved in reward, the ventral striatum, showed a blunted response to erotic cues and an increased response to monetary cues. Sescousse also looked at the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), another brain region involved in reward. In healthy individuals one part of the OFC responds to erotic stimuli and another part responds to monetary stimuli.

The division in the OFC, according to Sescousse*, “is a difference between need and survival. One part controls more primitive needs like sex and food and the other is activated by secondary rewards, like money and power”.

In compulsive gamblers, both regions of the OFC activated in response to money, suggesting compulsive gamblers view money, not for what money can buy, but because it is intrinsically satisfying.

So what do these findings mean for pathological gamblers? These findings may explain why gambling behavior is favored over other reward driven behaviors like drugs or sex in pathological gamblers. Perhaps enhancing the importance of other non-monetary rewards may work as a treatment. But these patient’s brains might be beyond return… maybe gambling will be the only thing to ever be rewarding…



National Research Council (US) Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of Pathological Gambling. Pathological Gambling: A Critical Review. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999. 3, Pathological and Problem Gamblers in the United States. Available from:

Imbalance in the sensitivity to different types of rewards in pathological gambling.
Guillaume Sescousse, Guillaume Barbalat, Philippe Domenech, Jean-Claude Dreher Brain. 2013 Aug; 136(Pt 8): 2527–2538. Published online 2013 Jun 11. doi: 10.1093/brain/awt126

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *