Gambling: Harmless Fun That Can Develop Into a Dangerous Addiction

Many adults gamble. Gambling is a widespread activity, with 86% of the general adult population endorsing lifetime participation in traditional forms of gambling and 52% of adults reporting participation in past-year lottery gambling.

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Some scratch lottery tickets, others play slots at a casino but in recent years online gambling has become a real hit! Nowadays It is ridiculously easy to place a bet online (see to get a grasp on how easy it is to place your first bet).

Definition of gambling

Gambling is consciously putting something of value at steak while the outcome is uncertain. Although for most of the people gambling is recreational, for a few it can progress to an addiction.

Gambling is classified as a “substance-related and addictive disorder” that has three characteristics: loss of control, craving/withdrawal, and neglect of other areas of life. Pathological gambling was first classified as a psychological disorder in 1980. Later it was renamed to “gambling disorder”. A study published in the journal Current Addiction Reports states that since gambling does not require the use of drugs of abuse it is an addiction in its pure form.

Some neuroimaging studies have shown that gambling causes changes in reward processing and prefrontal function. So what is it about gambling that makes it addictive?

The Brain

It becomes clear that gambling causes measurable and objective changes in the brain. The two main areas with observed changes are the prefrontal cortex that is involved in decision making, impulse control and is responsible for personality, and the ventral striatum where the brain processes rewards.

Scientists have detected increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum during gambling.


During gambling the brain gets tricked into wanting more and ultimately winning or getting a reward. When this happens neurotransmitters are released which either stimulate or depress the brain. The main neurotransmitter of the reward system is dopamine.

Dopamine is the pleasure hormone – it is released when you are satisfied, but also in situations where the reward is uncertain. It causes feelings like euphoria and pleasure. Dopamine also plays a role in drug addiction and reward behavior so it is often investigated in relation to gambling. In humans, dopamine transmission can be measured with a PET scan. A study reports that dopamine can potentially be used as a marker for risk assessment.

People are easily attracted to gambling because of the high rewarding experience. And recreationally it is not a problem. However, when it becomes an addiction, gambling disorder is diagnosed based on features similar to the ones for drug addiction: tolerance, withdrawal, unsuccessful attempts to quit and negative effect on one’s life.

As a behavioral addiction, gambling also runs in the family. It lowers the activation of the reward pathways, so this is why gamblers constantly try to stimulate them with the “gamble high”. However, to better understand its neurochemistry researchers need to study the changes that occur in the brain of gamblers over time, not just at the end of the journey.


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