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Drugged Rats Playing Slot Machines Offer a New Clue into Problem Gambling

Could an anti-gambling drug be the way to save the world's worst gamblers?

by Daniel Stuckey
Oct 30 2013, 9:20pm
Image via Flickr

I'm not so sure if I'm one of the millions of Americans with a gambling problem, but I wouldn't doubt it. To me, the cartoonish song of digital slots, the shimmering spin of a roulette wheel, and the roar of lunatics, elbow-to-elbow around a craps table, has its hold on me. Thankfully for all of us, new research could lead to help.

Over the course of 16 months, researchers at the University of British Columbia have successfully stopped rats from behaving like problem gambling humans.

"Pathological gambling is increasingly seen as a behavioral addiction similar to drug or alcohol addiction, but we know comparatively little about how to treat problem gambling," said Paul Cocker, a professor at UBC's Department of Psychology, in a release. "Our study is the first to show that by blocking these receptors we might be able to reduce the rewarding aspects of near-misses that appear to be important in gambling."

Drugs were administered in the rats to individually block D2, D3, and D4 dopamine receptors, which are thought to be associated with the type of reward feelings that addiction researchers think may reinforce addictive behavior. A drug blocking the D4 receptor was shown to be successful in curbing the rats' bad gambling habits—habits that the researchers argue mirror problem gambling in humans. But wait, what kind of gambling can a rat do? The study modeled behavioral responses to slot machine-style gambling for rats. Yes, slot machine-style gambling for rats.

The experiment started with a trio of lights that, like a slot machine, lit up in random combinations. If all three lit up, the rat "won," if only two or fewer lit up, the rat lost. The rats could pull a "cash-out" lever for a reward of 10 sugar pellets on winning trials, but were given a 10-second "time out" penalty on losing trails. The "roll again" lever allowed the rats to begin a new trial without penalty, but provided no sugar pellets.

One of the keys findings was that blocking the D4 receptor in rats resulted in a reduction of the addictive lure of a near-miss. You know—that moment where your slot reels show up "7-7-Cherry," and you get sucked in, thinking that you were that close, and then play again. Such behavior is thought to be a factor in the pathological development of problem gambling.

Still, we're talking about rats' responses to flashing lights, and there is a question of whether or not their responses were actually responses to awards. At the very least, the rats' interest in sugar pellets is a little different than the extreme madness of the bent-on-losing Alexei Ivanovich, in Dostoyevsky's The Gambler.

"More work is needed, but these findings offer new hope for the treatment of gambling addiction, which is a growing public health concern," Cocker said. "This study sheds important new light on the brain processes involved with gambling and gambling addictions."

Could an anti-gambling drug be the way to save the world's worst gamblers? Gambler's Anonymous does happen to be one of the largest support groups sought by Americans, and as Chantix and Nicorette have shown, a pill that can block a compulsive desire is what the future ordered. Then again, the pill has to work first, and that's as yet a long way off.