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This Rat Casino Shows Us Why We Love to Gamble

A new study found that rats were willing to risk much more when casino-like environments were added to the mix.

by Jake Kivanc
Jan 21 2016, 9:26pm

All of the rat lights. Photo via YouTube.

A rat casino assembled by scientists from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have proven two things: that bright lights and sounds may cause us to engage in more addictive behaviour, and that the release of dopamine is directly associated with risky gambling.

According to a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience this week, the researchers set up a pseudo-gambling scenario for the 32 rats involved, with the rewards being sugary snacks instead of money. They then gave the rats an option of four choices to bet on, each with an increasing level of both risk and reward.

At the beginning the experiment, rats stuck with the low risk option, knowing that they could take home small rewards consistently without having to face the prospect of losing—a result that would net them a timeout period in which they received no treats.

However, things changed when the researchers transformed the course into a rat casino through the use of bright lights and sounds. The study found that as the rats began to associate more lights and sounds with the higher-risk options, the rats began leave safety for the chance at scoring bigger. To researchers Catharine Winstanley and Michael Barrus, this is pretty huge.

"Translating these findings to humans, we think that people who are more attracted to these kinds of sound and light cues, and more influenced by them, may be more likely to make risky/bad choices in gambling games, and potentially become addicted to gambling," Winstanley told VICE via email.

What's even more fascinating is that when the rats were given dopamine-blocking drugs—specifically those that bind to D3 receptors—they no longer responded to the auditory or visual stimulus, which means they stopped taking big risks. Barrus told VICE that the blockers typically aren't used to treat addiction in humans because of their side effects, which include irregular motor function, but that rats respond well to the treatment.

Winstanley also said that while it's hard to determine whether casinos themselves amplify gambling, she does believe that the produce an environment that's very conducive to gambling disorder (GD) and that there needs to be more work done going into the future to ensure that gambling establishments aren't taking advantage of addicts.

"Lots of people happily enjoy gambling as a recreational pastime, but we need to know more about how to stop gambling addiction from taking hold in vulnerable individuals, and developing policies regarding safer gambling environments from that perspective. I hope that this will be an ongoing dialogue between research and industry for many years to come, as the gambling industry will have a huge role to play."

Going forward, Barrus says the next step for the team is to take on a human trial—minus the drugs—as current formulations do present serious side effects in humans. He also notes that one of the more promising prospects is being able to use lasers to hone in on the brains of rats and directly affect areas with D3 receptors are active. The hope is that, through lasers and rats, humans might one day be able to conquer our natural cycles of addiction.

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