The Neurology/Primatology of Gambling Addiction

The Story:

Americans lose close to $120 billion a year on games of chance. For some, this is a chosen form of entertainment, and a visit to a casino is no more problematic than, say, a visit to a football stadium to watch the home team play. But for others, gambling is an addiction, and a serious mental health issue.


The neuroscience behind addiction to gambling is an ongoing research subject.

Humans are not the only susceptible animal. In 2018 scientists affiliated with Johns Hopkins University trained monkeys to gamble with a computer to win drinks of water. The monkeys were taught to choose between a 20% chance of a larger drink of water versus a near-certainty of a smaller drink. The monkeys overwhelmingly took the gamble. They kept gambling for the large drink even after they were no longer thirsty. Scientists have been zeroing in on the reward circuitry of monkeys (and other primates!) that makes beating-the-odds in itself such a powerful reward.

In Pill Form:

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services. It maintains a national help line. If you or a loved one suffers from an addiction to gambling, please call 1-800-662-HELP.

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