Tiny ‘rat casino’ offers insight into brain and possible treatments for compulsive gambling
UBC Psychology Prof. Catharine Winstanley’s work on gambling addictions will be a highlight of the new Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a major new research and clinical facility opening later this month.
What has your research revealed about gambling addictions?
We have learned that, in animal models, problem gambling behaviours can be treated with drugs that block dopamine D4 receptors. These receptors are linked to a variety of behavioural disorders, but research had not yet shown a useful role in treatment. Our 2013 study found that rats treated with a dopamine D4 receptor-blocking medication showed reduced levels of behaviours commonly associated with compulsive gambling in humans.
How does the “rat casino” work?
Back in 2009, we created the world’s first animal lab experiment to model human gambling.
In our most recent study, 32 rats gambled for sugar pellets using a slot machine-style device that featured three flashing lights and two levers they could push with their paws. The rats exhibited several behaviours associated with problem gambling, such as the tendency to treat “near misses” in a similar way to wins. By blocking the D4 receptors with drugs, we were able to reduce this behaviour.
We used a slot machine model because “playing the slots” is known to be a particularly addictive form of gambling.
What does your research mean for individuals struggling with gambling addiction?
This research offers hope for treatment because it sheds important new light on the brain processes involved with problem gambling. The neurological basis of gambling is still poorly understood and few treatment options exist for gamblers. Our work brings us a step closer to the goal of drug-based treatment for people suffering from gambling disorders, a group that experiences higher rates of divorce, suicide and crime than non-gamblers.
While our findings suggest that blocking D4 dopamine receptors may help reduce pathological gambling behaviours in humans, further research is needed before the drugs can be considered a viable pharmaceutical treatment for pathological gambling in humans, a disorder that affects three-five per cent of North Americans, according to recent statistics.
Catharine Winstanley is an associate professor in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research scholar.
The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is
The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is Canada’s largest integrated brain centre. Powered by a dream team of clinicians, care providers and researchers, the DMCBH is a partnership between the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and was named for its principal funder, Djavad Mowafaghian.