The neuroscience of problem gambling

A recent Crio’s Question column during Responsible Gambling Awareness Week motivated some heartfelt and personal discussions about the dangers and joys of gambling. In a happy coincidence a fantastic review of the scientific literature “Getting a grip on problem gambling: what can neuroscience tell us?” was recently published by a group from Monash University led by Prof Murat Yücel.

Regardless of how you personally feel about gambling it is hard to disagree that it is now having a huge impact on the Australian economy and society. Currently Australians spend more on gambling per person than any other nation.

So why do some people fall into the trap of gambling addiction, while others are happy to enjoy the odd bet? Is it circumstance or biology? As with most things, it is undoubtedly a bit of both. In Yücel’s review it is clear that there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered but at the same time scientists are gaining a good understanding of the relevant biological processes involved.

In respect to research into the general question of addiction, it is an important sidenote that the vast majority of relevant neuroscientific studies have focused on substance abuse. This is not only because governments and clinicians are trying to reduce the negative impacts of drug use. It is also due to the simple fact that it is easier to get a mouse drunk or addicted to heroin and assess the effects of these drugs on its behaviour and brain, than it is to get a mouse interested in the pokies (let alone teach it how to do the form). So it is only much more recently that scientists have turned their focus to the uniquely human pursuit of gambling.


So what is known? One of the more interesting findings came from a large study in Dunedin, New Zealand, showing that children with impulsive behaviour and poor emotional control at age three were more than twice as likely than “well-adjusted” children to have gambling problems in adulthood. Consistent with the idea that there might be some important biological factors involved, a number of studies have now looked at brain scans of different adults during a range of different gambling scenarios. These studies show that the level of activity that occurs in response to a win or loss result will differ between those that have gambling problems and those don’t. One thing that is interesting about these studies is that in some cases it looks like brain responses to rewards are reduced in addicted gamblers, whereas in other cases such as some extremely risky bets, the responses are much greater. One hypothesis that has been put forward based on these types of results is that the problem gambler is far less satisfied with a modest or safe bet and will be more likely to chase the big win (as these are inherently more risky they will generally come with the biggest losses). On top of that, the brain of pathological gamblers respond to near-miss outcomes more like a win, whereas healthy individuals will code the same near-miss outcome – correctly – as a loss. Beyond the brain response to the actual outcome (win or loss), there also seems to be differences in the ways addicted gamblers interpret the information associated with a bet. For example, they are more likely to falsely believe that they can influence out-come probabilities of games (“illusion of control”).


Apart from these clear differences in the way problem gamblers appear to select bets and then respond to the resulting win or loss outcome, there are some other important findings that should be considered during any community discussion about the nature of gambling advertising. One of the most consistent findings is that problem gamblers find gambling-related stimuli much more salient. This means their brains show greater signs of arousal and they have a much harder time ignoring any type of image, sound, smell that relates to gambling (such as the jackpot sound at the pokies, or the sight of a receipt from a bet). So things like billboards and television commercials that are increasingly difficult to ignore – without locking yourself in a cupboard and switching off all forms of electronic media – are likely to be having the greatest effect on the very people that are trying hardest to ignore them.


Together these results show that important differences exist in the brain to make it much easier for some people to fall into the trap of problematic gambling and also much harder for these same people to give the habit up.


The much more complex question (one that remains a topic of both philosophical and neuroethical debates) relates to issues of free will and the extent to which any addict should be responsible for controlling their own behaviour. Society often looks to assign blame for unwanted behaviour  “who caused the problem, and who is going to fix it.” In the case of addiction there is no clear answer to the question of “fault.” On the one hand it is always going to come down to sheer will and determination of the affected individual to successfully quit, but it is wrong to assume that abstinence is going to be easy or equal for two different people to achieve.  This is extremely important to keep in mind whether you are struggling to break the habit yourself or are trying to help friends or family.  It is absolutely unfair to assume that your own experiences with gambling (or the use of alcohol or illicit substances) are similar to the experience of others – people that end up having problems controlling their use abuse are genuinely needing to tame the bigger beast.


Prof Yücel and his colleagues are about to embark on a new research study that will use a combination of MRI scans, psychological tests and questionnaires to pinpoint the differences between the brains of people who identify themselves as regular gamblers, and those of a control group. They are looking for volunteers in the Melbourne region who regularly gamble to take part. Participants will be reimbursed for their time, expenses and travel costs.

For more information contact the study researchers in confidence by emailing [email protected] or calling 0409 830 519.



  1. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Olivia, an interesting read. Having spent many years in Canberra sporting clubs to watch the Crows, I associate the sound of pokie jackpots with $2.60 schooners of James Squire Ale. More than happy to be wired thusly…

  2. That sounds like Eastlake or Ainslie Dave.

    I’m not brave enough to jump into a study like that. If I lose belief in free will I’ll be playing multi-ball pinball 12 hours a day and putting Barossa shiraz on my Weeties.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Ainslie, John. I was a north of the lake kinda guy.

  4. I used to work in the thoroughbred racing and sport ‘industry’. I’d wager (pardon the pun) that there’s so much undiagnosed problem gambling going on, disguised as bravado, that it’s frightening.

    For the life of me, I cannot imagine a more difficult habit for someone who loves sport in this day and age to try and break, than problem gambling.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the work of Prof Yucel and his work.

  5. Thanks Olivia, great read.
    Any updates on the study?

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