The cardsharp making a living in Vegas is a rare animal, most often a young non-Hispanic white man with perhaps a pathological gambling problem — to be scientifically precise.
Yet most other folks in society have at least tried gambling or acknowledge a casual affinity for games of chance, placing a few bucks on a game or buying a lottery ticket. Now, new research from the Cambridge University suggests that a gambler’s compulsion to continue betting may come as the result of a flawed cognition process.
In the study, Luke Clark found that people with brain damage to the emotion-regulating insula found no desire to keep betting after near misses at the slots or the roulette wheel. In most other people, the insula tends to disrupt the cognitive thought process with highly charged emotions, pushing the gambler to keep betting against all odds.
Scientists now believe people with pathological gambling problems may experience an overexcited insula, telling them to continue. "While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain's response to complex events, it's only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task," Clark said in a statement.
The researchers examined patients with injuries to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, or the insula while they played two different games of chance, including a slot machine game and a Roulette wheel. Only the patients with specific damage to the insula felt compelled to continue gambling after near misses in the slots and at the wheel.
"Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking,” Clark said. “Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies."
Known as “gaming” by the casino industry, gambling is widespread throughout most of the world. Some 73 percent of poll respondents in the United Kingdom say they’ve gambled at least once during the past year, while half play the national lottery. Gambling rates in the United States are similar with one to five percent of gamblers developing symptoms of pathological gambling.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that only 0.6 percent of Americans develop a pathological problem with gambling, with 2.3 percent experiencing at least one symptom.