Understanding addiction: Why your brain gets hooked on gambling

The brain of a gambling addict mimics that of a drug addict. But no outside chemicals are involved. How does that happen?

Maia Szalavitz: Addiction is: compulsive behavior despite negative consequences. 

And it's really important to start by defining addiction because for a long time we really defined it very poorly. 

We used to think that addiction was “needing a substance to function”. 

And what that resulted in was that cocaine was “not addictive” because cocaine does not produce physical withdrawal that is noticeable. You may be cranky and irritable and crave cocaine, but you won't be puking and shaking and have the classic symptoms that you would see with alcohol or heroin withdrawal. So cocaine wasn't addictive. 

Then crack came, and we realized that defining addiction in that way not only harms people by telling them that cocaine is not addictive, it also harmed pain patients because people who take opioids daily for pain will develop physical dependence, but they are not addicted unless they have compulsive behavior despite negative consequences.

To me, non-drug addictions are really, really interesting because some people have argued that drugs are addictive because they change the brain and that addiction results from unique pathology related to the particular chemicals of the drugs. 

It is certainly the case that the chemistry matters, but addiction can occur completely without any external chemicals. 

And the reason that that happens is that addiction is not simply exposure to a substance, addiction is a pattern of behavior, and certain patterns of experience are inherently addictive. 

And gambling is a good example of this because what gambling does is it gives you intermittent reinforcement. And so every unpredictable amount of times, you win. 

And this is a puzzle to our pattern-seeking brains, and we keep thinking we're going to find a pattern and it's going to sort out and we're going to understand it, and we're going to get rich. Or we find that sort of the constant immersion in these ideas that allow you to escape: “Well I've got to do—this is going to soothe you and allow you to escape from your life,” and stuff like this.

I think gambling is also really interesting because we've had an enormous explosion in the availability of gambling, but we have not had an enormous explosion of gambling addictions. ‘

And again, this is because the population rate— there's only a certain percent of people who will be vulnerable. 

Now, you can make more of those people by traumatizing them and taking away their economic ways of living, but you can't create them by providing more substances or more addictive opportunities.

Author and neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz says that your brain doesn't necessarily choose to become addicted to gambling. Rather, it just really wants to figure out a pattern. This 'want' doesn't need any foreign chemicals in order to make it work. In the mind of a serious gambler, their brain wants to find order in the game's structure so bad that it will keep the person playing, telling itself that it will figure it out and that it's just one step away from becoming rich. This doesn't happen to everyone — on the contrary, addictive gamblers are a small yet potent percentage of all gamblers — but their brains mimic that of a severe drug addict trying to get their next fix. Maia's latest book is Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.