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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Compulsive Gambling: Why Gamble?

Shu-Zhen Kuang

A game of tiles called mahjong was first introduced to me at the age of ten. My aunts and uncles seemed very fond of the game where small amounts of money were either won or loss among the four players. I always considered gambling as a form of entertainment that is played occasionally with family and friends. As with other forms of entertainment, such as going to the movies or watching TV, gambling takes your mind off of daily life and involves you in a game of strategy and chance. Although a card game can be fun by itself, the excitement is amplified when money or any type of wager is involved. The thrill from gambling may be one of the reasons why gambling have taken over some peoples' lives. It has been estimated that 1% of American adults have compulsive gambling problems (1). Since people with this disorder seem to be unable to control their own actions, there may be a biological component to this disorder. However, social backgrounds could also influence the likelihood of developing this disorder. What roles does biology and society play in the development of compulsive gambling among individuals?

Compulsive or pathological gamblers are characterized by their inability to control their gambling urges to the point that all they think about is gambling and ways to support this habit. Most compulsive gamblers ruin their own lives as well as the lives of family members (2). There are two types of compulsive gamblers: action and escape. Action gamblers typically think of themselves as highly skilled individuals. Therefore, they prefer to take a lot of risks in order to demonstrate their talents. As the name suggests, escape gamblers gamble to forget about unresolved problems and issues in their own lives. In this case, gambling is used as a form of relief from the depressed or anxious state the person is currently experiencing (1).

From a biological perspective, compulsive gambling is an addiction similar to drug and substance abuse, even though it is categorized under impulse control disorder (1). The neurotransmitter called dopamine seems to be involved in reward, pleasure and addiction in the brain. Some doctors have noticed a linked between Parkinson's disease and compulsive gambling. Since dopamine also controls muscle movement, medication is given to patients with Parkinson's disease that stimulations the dopamine receptors in the brain. When higher dosages of this medication were given, some patients reported gambling problems as a side effect. When the dosage was lowered, patients reported decreased urges to gamble. Therefore, it is possible that dopamine can be linked to compulsive gambling problems (3).

However, another study reported that levels of dopamine were found to be changing in the brain when a person gambles. Subjects were given three different scenarios: one where the monetary reward was unpredictable, one where the monetary award was predictable and one where there was no award expected or given (control). The unexpected monetary reward, resembling gambling, increased levels of dopamine in the certain regions of the brain at the same time decreasing dopamine levels in neighbors regions. The predictable monetary situation showed no significant changes in dopamine levels in the brain. Since dopamine levels increases and decreases in different regions of the brain, there seems to be a more components to compulsive gambling than only the dopamine reward system (4).

Other research has shown that the brain's prefrontal cortex, which is linked to judgment and decision-making, may be damaged in compulsive gamblers. People with and without gambling addiction took mental tests for this study. The results demonstrated that compulsive gamblers made more mistakes and bad choices in tasks involved in decision-making, and attention and inhibitory control, respectively. An abnormality in the prefrontal cortex may be a contributing factor in compulsive gambling or compulsive gambling may be damaging the prefrontal cortex. It is unknown which one of these factors is causing the other to occur (5).

Genetics is also another biological factor to compulsive gambling. Studies have shown that some people are predisposed to develop gambling problems due to their genes. Genes could explain for as much as 35% of the gambling problems found in individuals (1). If damage in the prefrontal cortex is causing compulsive gambling, genetics could be the origin of this abnormality. Since there is genetic variety among individuals, dopamine may not have the same effect in everyone's brain. Some individuals that are predisposed to gambling problems may have an entirely different experience of dopamine that is similar to substance addictions. As mentioned before, dopamine can be released when the person gets a thrill from gambling. In order to recapture the high levels of dopamine, the person must continue to gamble (3).

Other psychiatric disorders such as depression, mania, and substance and drug abuse are also present in many compulsive gamblers. These disorders seem to contribute to compulsive gambling in individuals. For a person with depression, gambling provides some form of relief by possibly causing the release of high concentrations of dopamine in the brain. In order to make the depression go away momentarily, the person continues to gamble and slowly develops compulsive gambling problems. If the situation is reversed, the compulsive gambler can develop depression from gambling because he or she becomes bankrupted and loses his or her family. The person will continue to gamble due to his or her depression. In both scenarios, compulsive gambling continues to perpetuate no matter where the disorder originated from (6).

Although there are many biological aspects to compulsive gambling, the societal and environmental impacts can not be ignored. The benefits from gambling institutions are numerous. Gambling is a $40 billion business in America. Every state has legalized gambling of some form except two states. From an economic point of view, gambling is great for the state government since it is the easiest way to generate tax revenues. Gambling institutions, such as casinos, attract many tourists and provide job opportunities in the area (7). Although many people gamble only for recreation, some develope gambling problems due to the availability of casinos, horse tracks, and other gambling sites commonly found in many places. Previous studies have shown people living within 50 miles of a casino have a higher rate of compulsive gambling problems (1). Even though gambling institutions does not created economic expansion in the areas where it is open for business, gambling continues to be a growing industry. The American population will only become more vulnerable to gambling problems as more casinos and other gambling institutes are built (7).

Social backgrounds are another contributing factor to compulsive gambling. Higher rates of compulsive gambling are seen in African Americans compare to Caucasians. People with low income and limited education are at a higher risk of developing a gambling problem because they are more likely to visit casinos and buy lottery tickets to gamble for that chance to win big. The temptation of winning an extraordinary amount of money may slowly develop into a gambling problem and eventually compulsive gambling (1).

Certain population demographics are more at risk to develop gambling problems than others. Because gambling is becoming more accessible online, teenagers are more likely to develop gambling problems than adults. The gambling addiction is starting at a younger age given that teenagers are learning how to gamble before they could legally participate in real gambling situations (8). The elder demographic (65 and older) may be more vulnerable to gambling problems too. Seniors often visit casinos for entertainment and most seniors just gamble for fun. However, some seniors are at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers, which is problematic since many live on a restricted income. The mental statuses of seniors are also more likely to be impaired due to age, which may influence their ability to gamble reasonably (9). Although seniors and teenagers, for different reasons, are more at risk, gambling problems are present in every age demographic.

In the past, women were not allowed to participate in gambling games due to social restrictions. However, as women began to be treated with equal rights as men, more women began to gamble as well (2). Although the majority of compulsive gamblers are men, women are also developing an addiction to gambling (1). As the numbers of women with gambling problems increased, it was thought that a different type of gambling problem was found in women than in men. However, this was not the case. In Arizona, 95% of women who called for help belong to the category of escape gamblers, but 63% of men are also identified in the same category. The remaining portion of men and women are considered action gamblers. Gender did not seem to dominate a certain type of compulsive gambling (10), (11).

Treatments for compulsive gambling have been similar to those used for other addictions. Psychodynamic therapy, 12-step programs, motivational interviewing, and cognitive behavior therapies are among the treatments used for compulsive gambling. However, medications are only used to treat depression or other psychiatric disorders that comes along with compulsive gambling. The effectiveness of medications on compulsive gambling is unknown due to the small amount of studies done in this area. As a result, drugs are not widely used to treat this disorder. Treatments are typically used in combinations, but the effectiveness of each treatment for compulsive gambling is unknown. Due to the low success rates of 12-step programs and short term effectiveness of other treatments, many people accepting treatment for this disorder will slip back into old habits (1).

With the continual growth of the gambling industry, compulsive gambling will become a larger problem than it is now. It is uncertain which types of treatments have a greater effect on compulsive gambling, if any effect at all. Without this information, it will be increasingly difficult to treat the growing number of compulsive gamblers seeking for help in the future. Obviously, the amount of research money provided for this area of study is inadequate. Therefore, the government and gambling industries should provide a larger budget for research to understanding current treatments and developing additional treatments for this disorder. Medicines used to treat other addictions should be tested for its effectiveness on compulsive gambling. More research can also go into the whether action and escape gamblers require different treatments. Although learning more about the effectiveness of treatments, individually or in combination, is necessary, preventative measures should also be taken. To reduce the number of compulsive gamblers in the future, schools should inform students of the development of this disorder and its consequences. The government and gambling industry should consider hiring gambling addiction experts to search for and counsel people with signs of gambling problems in casinos and horse race tracks (1).

Compulsive gambling is a complex disorder that is affected by a combination of social and biological components. Although more research on how differences in dopamine levels and the prefrontal cortex is connected with compulsive gambling is necessary, social aspects of compulsive gambling should not be ignored. Clearly, the interactions between the biological and the social components are what will determine the likelihood of becoming a compulsive gambler.


1)Problem Gambling

2)Differences in Pathological Gamblers in Arizona

3)The Dopamine Connection

4)Gambling increases level of brain chemical

5)Pathological gambling associated with brain impairments

6)Gambling Addiction

7)Gambling Facts & Stats

8)Problem Gamblers Show Brain Impairment

9)Senior Gamblers Play Dangerous Odds

10)Women Gamblers

11)Men Gamblers

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