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November 26, 2001

A new study published in Neuron lends support to the idea that gambling addictions may well have biological roots. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that prize money could activate many of the same "reward" areas in the brain turned on by food and drugs.

"This work argues that we can begin to dissect the systems that process reward and organize behavior in humans," says lead author Hans Breiter. "This is also 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."

The researchers set up an experiment to measure the brain activity of volunteers as they gambled. The subjects were given $50 and told they could lose it all or keep their potential winnings. Each subject played the game with one of three spinners: a "good spinner" offered them the chance to earn $10, $2.50 or nothing; an intermediate spinner offered $2.50, $0 or -$1.50; and a "bad spinner" let them win nothing or lose $1.50 or $6. The researchers measured each subject's brain activity using high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both during six-second spins and after the results were in.

The scientists found that depending on whether a subject played the game with the good, intermediate or bad spinner, he or she showed strong, moderate or low activation levels in certain key brain regions. "The results showed that an incentive unique to humans, money, produced patterns of brain activity that closely resembled patterns seen previously in response to other types of rewards," Breiter says. "This similarity suggests that common brain circuitry is used for various types of rewards."

Separately another study has shown that casinos, contrary to the belief of numerous cities and Indian tribes, don't bring economic health to a community.

In the journal Managerial and Decision Economics, two economists describe their recent analysis of the costs and benefits associated with introducing a casino to a community. Earl Grinols of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and David Mustard of the University of Georgia concluded that the costs outstripped the gains almost two fold, an imbalance that amounts to a national loss of at least $27.5 billion each year.

"Much of the information has been funded by the gambling industry itself," Grinols says, "and is marked by poorly executed or biased economic-impact studies that use incomplete data or make conclusions not supported by facts." Very often, calculations wrongly include the tax receipts and wages from a casino without also taking into account the establishment's effect on other businesses, from whom they drain revenue.

Also underestimated, Grinols and Mustard say, are the social costs. Two-thirds to 80 percent of gambling revenues come from just 10 percent of the population. But among this group, one in five files for bankruptcy and 21 to 36 percent gets fired from their job. These pathological gamblers take "a predictable path of exhausting personal resources, selling insurance policies, selling possessions and 'borrowing' from family and friends" to the tune of $13,586 a year. So too, crime rates are approximately eight percent higher in counties with casinos at least four years old.

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