Looking At Gambling Urges With Brain Imaging

The urge to gamble can be a powerful force among individuals with a gambling disorder and often precipitates relapse among those who are trying to reduce or quit gambling. Researchers are aware of these urges due to studies using self-reported data, but the field of research needs to have more objective data regarding the biological factors at play. There is now evidence of the neurobiological underpinnings of urges thanks to an innovative brain imaging study from the NCRG Center for Excellence in Gambling Research at Yale University. The study used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine the responses to sad, happy and gambling scenarios among 10 men with pathological gambling (PG) and a control group of 11 men without gambling problems (Balodis, I.M., Lacadie, C.M., & Potenza, M.N., 2011).

Researchers conducted this experiment by having the study participants view videotapes of actors depicting a scene including a happy, sad or gambling scenario. Following the viewing, the participants described their emotional responses and rated their intensity of feeling. Individuals who were previously diagnosed with pathological gambling reported significantly more intense emotional responses and gambling urges when viewing the gambling scenarios than the control group. Consistent with the authors’ hypothesis, the fMRI found activations in the brain regions involved with processing emotional memories correlated with the subjective reports of the participants.

Previous studies have found ways that the brains of individuals diagnosed with PG are demonstrably different than those of non-PG individuals. This study adds to the literature by showing that there are both objective differences in brain chemistry and subjective differences in the way those with gambling problems experience emotion and motivation in response to emotional stimuli.

Note that this preliminary study’s main limitations include a small sample size and only male participants, and more studies should be done to expand the sample size and include women participants in the research. In addition, using the fMRI makes it difficult to replicate actual gambling settings. Nonetheless, the study is the first to directly examine the relationship between participants’ subjective responses and regional brain activations. By understanding the specific brain regions involved in gambling disorders, scientists will have a roadmap to aid in the development of targeted drugs. This understanding can also help investigators determine how various therapies—from pharmacological to behavioral—can impact recovery from gambling disorders.


Balodis, I. M., Lacadie, C. M., & Potenza, M. N. (In press). A Preliminary study of the neural correlates of the intensities of self-reported gambling urges and emotions in men with pathological gambling.Journal of Gambling Studies.DOI: 10.1007/s10899-011-9259-8

NCRG staffResearch Updategamblinggambling disordersneuroscienceresearch