• Gambling and the Adolescent Brain

    Viddal Gambling and the Brain from GamCare on Vimeo.

    Last month I made a film with the lovely people at Polar Media where we
    scanned someone’s brain while they were playing roulette, imported it into a VR experience and made it light up like a Christmas tree in the brain areas that get most excited when we gamble. The project was commissioned by GamCare – a gambling charity that offer support services to people with gambling problems.

    London-based boxer and YouTuber extraordinaire
    Viddal Riley came along to ask a few questions about the impact of gambling on teenagers brains.

    Whether an adolescent gambles or not, the reward pathway – including the
    ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NucAcc) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – gradually reorganises itself to increase a young
    person’s appetite for risky decisions.

    The reason that our brains change like this over the transition from childhood to adulthood is because it helps young people to start experimenting with building alliances with people outside of the family unit to test the waters of independence in preparation for flying the nest. Increases in sensitivity to the reward pathway’s most important neurotransmitter – dopamine – enable riskier decisions to be taken more easily to help teenagers feel bold enough to become more and more independent from their parents. These changes famously create rifts between parents and adolescents, but even that happens for a reason: the disruption helps both parties to psychologically prepare for the young person to one day set up independently.

    With all this in mind, we move onto what happens in the brain when people gamble too often. If a fully grown adult gambles every day, eventually the reward pathway remodels itself in response. When we experience a win it makes us feel good because the win causes an increase in activation across the whole reward pathway. When we experience a
    loss it makes us feel disappointed because the it causes a decrease in
    activation, again across the whole reward pathway. But there’s a type of loss
    that feels exciting (despite the gambled money going down the toilet all the
    same) which is a NEAR MISS – in roulette this would be where the ball lands on the segment adjacent to the number you put a bet on. Still a loss, but oooooooh – so close!

    It is these near misses that seem to get people with gambling issues in a pickle because it generates almost as much excitement in the reward pathway as a win. And it also strongly reinforces the desire to play again, because people tell themselves something along the lines of “next time it will go better for me.” In fact, there is one part of the reward pathway – the lateral orbitofrontal cortex which sits just above the eye sockets to the side of the head (see the dark blue diamond on illustration below) – which lights up more strongly to near misses in people whose beliefs leave them prone to the type of thinking that leads to problem gambling.

    Image showing brain areas involved in all decision making

    These beliefs include the gambling fallacy where people think that if the
    ball has landed on red five times in a row then it is more likely to land on
    black next time. This is not true. It’s always a (nearly) 50/50 chance each and every time the ball spins round the wheel because each spin is completely independent of all the spins that occur before and after. But in our hearts it FEELS like the next time it should come up differently, no matter what the maths says.

    The other thing that happens in the brain of someone who gambles every day is that they slowly but surely become desensitised. If placing bets of £1 per spin created high levels of excitement in the reward pathway in the first few weeks, it will likely not be enough to create the same excitement a couple of months later. So people who gamble regularly end up betting more and more money, more and more often, in an effort to try to get the same buzz as when the experience of gambling was fresh, new and exciting.

    This happens because the reward pathways remodels its connections so that it takes more dopamine release in the gap between brain cells to trigger an electrical message to be sent to the next brain cell in the circuit. A bet of £1 resulting in a win of £36 is easily enough to get the reward pathway zinging at first, but after the dopamine system has adjusted its connections to make it harder and harder to trigger this response, it takes a £2 stake resulting in a £72 win, or a £10 stake resulting in a £360 win to get a satisfying response.

    As gambling regularly causes brain changes in the reward pathway that encourage the brain’s owner to bet larger and larger stakes, more and more often, if that brain happens to be going through adolescence at the same time – making the riskier decisions seem much more enticing than normal – it can cause a double-whammy of chaos. No matter how much money they lose, the excitement of the risky decisions keeps them coming back for more. This is why its illegal to gamble under the age of 18.

    The house always wins. Which means all the betting companies know for sure that they will always make many millions in profit every year because the whole system is designed to make losing money feel enjoyable. It’s hard enough for fully grown adults to manage their gambling habit. The trouble is, when teenagers start to acquire a taste for placing bets it’s not just hard for them to stop pouring money into other people’s pockets, it’s almost impossible.

    Having a flutter on the Grand National once a year won’t make a gambling addict out of anyone. But the more often you place a bet, the more likely you are to be tweaking the circuitry of your reward pathway to encourage the temptation of more regular betting for higher stakes. And if the person doing this happens to be a teen, then it’s even more likely to start spiralling out of control into a full blown addiction.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about brain science and virtual reality on Twitter (@drjacklewis).

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