20% of gamblers attempt suicide — why don't we take the addiction more seriously?

Americans lost $116.9 billion gambling in 2016.

women gambling at slot machines
Patrons test their luck with a card game slot machine at the renovated Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino November 15, 2006 in Hallandale Beach, Florida. The slot machines are the state of Florida's first Las Vegas-style slot machines. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
  • Gambling addiction has been shown to have the same pharmacological effects as opiates.
  • Eighty-five percent of all gambling revenue comes from slot machines.
  • Casinos are designed to disorient and confuse patrons, from the lighting and carpeting to the key of machine sounds.


The smell is the first assault even though the triggers for sensory overload occur concurrently. That is by design. As the fog of cigarette smoke invades your nostrils (and clothing; look forward to those dry cleaning bills) thousands of machines cry out in the key of C. That key is believed to be less fatiguing than others; every one of the 400 sounds ringing from slot machines is thus tuned in this manner. They want gamblers awake — sort of.

My dilemma: I hate Las Vegas, but I love my father, who lives in the city, and I love Cirque du Soleil, so each visit includes casino visits. More my speed are off-strip Indian and ramen joints — Vegas food culture, also by design, is exceptional — and hiking amid the stoic architecture of Red Rocks. Casinos remind me of malls: opportunities for sociological observation, collecting stories for future journalistic endeavors. Capitalism, unhinged.

Casino design has long piqued my curiosity. As an early riser, I've always wondered what would make people choose to spend their hard-earned money to travel to a city in the middle of nowhere in order to waste it feeding quarters into a machine blatantly stacked against their favor at 5:30 in the morning.

Cigarettes and gambling go hand-in-hand. We're well aware the former is addictive; if not death, then certainly a host of health problems will plague the addict. What of the second? Why do we not discuss gambling addiction more broadly? Why does a problem this serious have to stay in Vegas?

Inside the brain of a gambling addict - BBC News

And the problem is serious. As Chris Hedges writes in his latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, 20 percent of gambling addicts attempt suicide, the highest percentage of all addictions. Though the opioid crisis is not slowing, there are governmentally-funded efforts combating it. Cigarette manufacturers are required to post warnings in large fonts alongside photos of diseased lungs. Smartphone addiction rewires our brains, but we haven't had the courage as a society to face that one yet. From alcohol to sex, at least nominal attempts at curbing behavior are attempted. For the most part, gambling escapes this fate.

The extent of online data collection was an eye-opener for many, but Hedges exposes the insidious lengths casinos collect information in order to keep customers hooked. Player cards allow management to "manage 20,000 behavior models per second." The seemingly innocuous machine branded with your favorite superhero or television show adapts to your playing rates as it learns your behavior. If you become fatigued, there's a fix for that too. According to the author,

"These profiles know at what point a player accumulates too many losses and too much pain and walks away from a machine. A few moments before the pain threshold is reached, a hostess will magically appear with a voucher for a free meal, drinks, or tickets to a show."

In 2016, Americans lost $116.9 billion dollars gambling; 85 percent of that was dumped into slot machines. Gambling replicates the pharmacological effects of opiates. The casino floor is purposefully designed to disorient and confuse. Right angles are a no-no on carpets, as they offer a physical option. Sharp angles ground you in space, humanity's version of a fork in the road. Casinos suspend time, and therefore space, which is why there are no windows. Cluing you into your circadian rhythm might cause you to leave.

A new show at The Fountains of Bellagio is choreographed to a medley of DJ/producer Tiesto's songs on September 17, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image source: Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Resorts International

Once gambling is in your bloodstream, it crosses industries. A new study published in Addictive Behaviors, from the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, notes that over half of regular gamblers (those who gamble at least once a month) trade cryptocurrencies, which the researchers compare to high-risk stock trading. When gamblers engage in both, the likelihood they'll suffer anxiety and depression, gateways to suicidal tendencies, increases. As Lia Nower, director of the center and co-author of the study, notes,

"People who trade cryptos look very much like those who trade high risk stocks such as margins and options. Therefore, those who like risky stocks are also more likely to jump into the cryptocurrency trading market compared to those who, for example, invest in stocks over the long term."

For decades, gambling was listed in the DSM, the bible of the American Psychological Association, as an impulse-control disorder. After 15 years of debate, pathological gambling was moved into addiction disorders in DSM-5, due to the chemical influence it has on our brain's reward system. Gamblers and drug addicts even share genetic predispositions.

As Hedges writes, the rush of gambling provides stimulation during a time of a dysfunctional political system, decreased labor rights in the gig economy, and social stagnation in which virtually no serious issue is entertained without having to choose sides. In times of such uncertainty, we seek comfort at every turn. While conducting his famous stimulation experiments with rats and pigeons, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner used slot machines as the guiding metaphor for his study, which found that the animals compulsively press levers when they don't know when or how much they'll be rewarded. Follow the mammalian chain of command and we arrive at the strip.

Hedges interviews cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Whether you gamble or not, according to Schüll high-risk thinking is affecting all of us, also by design. It's the atmosphere of the moment, and the forecast is not sunny. She concludes,

"If you look at the way a casino is designed, and you remember that Trump is a designer of many casinos, including his non-casino properties, they follow the same design logic of disorientation and trying to sweep people away from themselves, away from rationality, away from a position where they have clear lines of sight and can act as decision-making subjects."

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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.

Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
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