Research On Gambling Addiction Yields Breakthroughs

National Center for Responsible Gaming-funded studies debut in leading scientific journals

Jun 1, 2001

KANSAS CITY, MO—The drug naltrexone has been found to significantly reduce gambling urges and behaviors among pathological gamblers, according to a University of Minnesota study reported in the June 1, 2001, issue of Biological Psychiatry.

The clinical trial, funded by a $54,000 grant from the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), found that 75 percent of the patients receiving naltrexone improved in terms of their urges to gamble. Because of naltrexone’s actions in the brain areas that process pleasure and urges, the study’s lead investigator, Suck Won Kim, M.D., had theorized that this drug would be useful for treating pathological gambling. Naltrexone has been effective in the treatment of alcoholism and bulimia.

‘Gambling has taken control of my life,’ said Beth Irvin, who is now being treated with naltrexone. ‘I’ve tried to control this addiction in hundreds of other ways and I believe what I’m experiencing today is a miracle of science.’

The publication of the naltrexone trial follows on the heels of the release of another NCRG-funded study of the brain’s reward circuitry. A grant of $175,000 from the NCRG to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) helped support a study, published in last week’s issue of Neuron, examining how the human brain responds to the anticipation and reward of money.

The researchers, led by Hans Breiter, M.D., co-director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Center at MGH, used the neuroimaging process called functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of volunteers participating in a game of chance. ‘This is the first demonstration that a monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine,’ Breiter said.

‘We are very proud to have supported cutting-edge research that will help us understand and treat gambling disorders,’ said Maj. Gen. Paul A. Harvey (Ret.), chairman of the NCRG.

‘Furthermore, we are gratified that two of the most prestigious academic journals have confirmed the rigorous review process that we used to select these projects for funding.’

The NCRG has awarded $3.7 million in research grants since 1996 and an additional $2.3 million to establish the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions. A landmark 1997 Harvard study, funded by the NCRG, estimated that approximately 1 percent of the adult population can be classified as pathological gamblers. This estimate is now widely accepted as the most reliable statistic about the prevalence of gambling disorders.