(L) Gambling changes brain dynamics (2009)

By Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer – Posted: 12/09/2009 04:56:58 PM PST

If you know someone with a gambling problem and they say they can’t stop, there’s a very good reason. And it isn’t a lack of willpower. A pathological gambler has different brain characteristics than the normal person, scientists now believe.

Sophisticated diagnostic techniques have been applied to study compulsive gamblers and the results have shown that the brain’s chemical response to gambling is similar to a drug addict’s response to a fix or an alcoholic’s response to a stiff drink, said psychiatrists from Loma Linda University Medical Center and UCLA.

Gambling can trigger the same release of dopamine – the reward chemical in the brain – as do illicit drugs or alcohol, Drs. Peter Prezkop of Loma Linda and Timothy Fong of UCLA agreed. As drug and alcohol users chase their first high with more substance abuse, pathological gamblers chase their initial rush – often by increasing the money they put down on bets.

“It isn’t important whether you win or lose. To a lot of people, it’s the rush,” said Bob, a recovering pathological gambler who lives in Upland and attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Rancho Cucamonga. (Gamblers Anonymous members do not divulge their last names.)

While gambling stimulates some areas of the brain into hyperactivity, other parts become under-active, said Fong, who is co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and director of UCLA’s Addiction Medicine Clinic. Prezkop, an assistant professor of psychiatry at LLUMC, said that the areas of the brain dealing with limits on behavior, job, family and responsibility become less active.

“I see (excessive) gambling as a brain disorder,” said Fong. “The higher executive functioning skills and problem solving become impaired. It’s similar to patients with methamphetamine addictions.” The real challenge in treatment is to reverse that.”

The comprehensive 2006 California Problem Gambling Survey found that the overall lifetime prevalence rate of problem and pathological gambling in California is 3.7 percent of the adult population, near the upper range of the nationwide estimate, from 2 percent to 5 percent. The study has not been updated.

Fong said the 2006 survey result was about twice what it had been in a survey nearly two decades ago – prior to the boom of Indian gaming. Last year, the number of calls to the California Council on Problem Gambling’s Hot Line showed a 40 percent increase, from 10,912 in 2006 to 18,470 calls in 2008. Last year, 7.5 percent of the calls were from the 909 area code, 6.6 percent were from the 951 area code, 3.2 percent were from 323, and 3.3 percent were from both 626 and 562, according to reports.

At the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino near Highland, an effort to promote responsible gambling is taken seriously, said Steve Lengel, executive director of operations. The casino is one of the few in the state to be certified by state and national gambling addiction agencies, he said. All 3,000 employees, “no matter what position” have been trained to look for problem gamblers.

If they hear or see signs, then they would go to an ambassador, an employee trained at a higher level, who would talk to the gambler “very delicately,” Lengel said. The ambassador will talk to them about the hot line, noting that telephone counselors could set them up with a support group or counseling. In some cases, the gambler may elect to “ban themselves” from the casino. Security could be alerted if they later re-enter and use their club card, he said.

Hae Wang Lee, a certified gambling addiction counselor in Walnut, said that gamblers can hide the effects of their habit easier than many with other addictions. “Most gamblers have an IQ that is 120 or higher. They are very bright, and can scheme and lie easily,” he said.

Jane Shultz, who runs an intensive outpatient program in West Los Angeles and Redlands that treats all addictions, said that a huge reason for gambling is the relief of stress and anxiety. Students can quickly take their gambling addiction to the Internet, she said. In one case, a student was on the computer for 30 hours straight, she said.

Shultz said there are four phases of progressive deterioration in problem gambling:

  • Winning phase: occasional gambling with ever increasing amounts of money;
  • Losing phase: debts begin to accumulate;
  • Desperation phase: The gambler begins to steal money to suppost the gambling habit.
  • Hopeless phase: The gambler becomes overwhelmed by debt, divorce and suicidal thoughts.

Marc Lefkowitz, acting executive director and training director of the Anaheim-based California Council on Problem Gambling, said it’s hard for addicted gamblers to recover after divorce. “They have no place to go back to, they have no reason to stop,” said Lefkowitz, who also teaches classes on how to counsel problem gamblers at San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino and Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

Bob, at Gamblers Anonymous, said that pathological gamblers have the highest rate of suicide of any addiction. “A lot of times the financial burden is so great they feel there is no other solution,” he said.