After 15 years of deliberation, the American Psychiatric Association has moved gambling to the addiction chapter of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Pathological gambling was originally labeled an impulse disorder along with kleptomania and pyromania, which is motivated by anxiety rather than a craving or intense pleasure.
The decision to move gambling into the addiction chapter was made based on numerous studies in psychology, genetics, and neuroscience, which revealed that pathological gambling and drug addiction are much more similar than previously realized.
In the middle of our cranium lays a series of circuits known as the reward system that links various scattered brain regions involved in movement, pleasure, motivation, and memory. When the brain is stimulated by amphetamines, cocaine, or other addictive drugs, the reward system releases up to 10 times more dopamine that usual. Addictive substances keep the brain so flooded with dopamine that it eventually adapts by producing less of the molecule and becoming less responsive to its effects.
Both drug addicts and problem gamblers suffer withdraw symptoms when they are separated from the chemical thrill they crave. Studies of blood flow and electrical activity in people’s brains as they complete tasks on the computer that mimic casino games or test their impulse control, reveal that drugs and gambling alter the same brain circuits in similar ways. Like drug addicts, gamblers loose sensitivity to their high when winning. Research proves that gamblers have lower than typical electrical activity in a key region of the brain’s reward system. In a study done at the University of Amsterdam, gamblers taking tests that measured their impulsivity had unusually low levels of electrical activity in the prefrontal brain regions that help people assess risks and suppress impulses.
This new understanding of gambling has helped scientists redefine addiction itself. Experts defined addiction as dependency on a chemical but now define it as repeatedly perusing a rewarding experience despite repercussions. Just about anything alters the brain so it makes sense that gambling can cause dramatic physical changes too.