A visit to any casino will quickly demonstrate how vices clump together. At any hour of the day or night, many of the customers sitting intently in front of a slot machine will also be smoking cigarettes or drinking a cocktail. Sadly, addictions to these pursuits also tend to go hand in hand, with higher rates of compulsive gambling observed in people addicted to drugs such as cocaine and alcohol. Furthermore, when people perform gambling-like tasks while their brain is scanned by an MRI machine, the games activate areas of the brain also stimulated by drugs of abuse – perhaps accounting for the addiction-like behavior of gamblers.
“If you’ve ever been to a casino, and you watch people using slot machines, you’ll surely have noticed the sense of compulsion to put the next coin in, even though you get no money back most of the time,” said Paul Vezina, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
But does one bad habit truly lead to the other? In a recent paper for the journal Behavioural Brain Research, a team from Vezina’s laboratory offers evidence that the unpredictability crucial to gambling’s appeal can cross over to enhance the effects of abused drugs. By adapting self-administration, a common tool used to model drug-taking in animal research, to partially replicate the random pay-off of a slot machine, graduate student Bryan Singer was able to test whether gambling-like behavior influences a rat’s subsequent response to the drug amphetamine. The result suggests that gambling may have properties similar to a “gateway drug,” as an activity that can increase the abusive potential of drugs.
First of all, how do you simulate the casino experience for a rat? Self-administration – where the animal presses a lever to receive a food or drug reward – is fairly similar to a slot machine to begin with. In a self-administration protocol, the researcher sets the number of lever presses required before the reward is given. A “fixed ratio” of 5 means that the rat would have to hit the lever five times before receiving a food pellet or rewarding hit of cocaine. But with a “variable ratio” setup, unpredictability is introduced into the process. If the variable ratio is set to an average of 5, anywhere from 1 to 10 presses might be required to produce reward, a figure that changes every time like the random number generator of a slot machine. So while the rat does not have anything at stake other than the physical work it takes to hit the lever, it never knows when it will hit the “jackpot.”
“One of the main differences is that for a slot machine there’s a good chance you’re going to lose money, but here there’s little negative aspect,” Singer said. “It’s like a very loose slot machine.”
In this experiment, Singer and co-author John Scott-Railton used the non-caloric sweetener saccharine as a reward – a sweet treat that rats will work to acquire without ever getting full or intoxicated. For 55 days, half of the rats worked for saccharine under fixed ratio conditions and half worked under the variable ratio setup. Then, after a two week break, each rat was given a small dose of amphetamine, and researchers measured their activity as the dosed rats ran around their cage.
Even though the rats in each group received the same amount of saccharine and did the same amount of work during their lever-pressing careers, those exposed to the random rules of the variable ratio exhibited a stronger response to amphetamine. The result suggests that unpredictable rewards may prime the same brain areas hijacked by drugs of abuse, producing a stronger behavioral response – known in the field as sensitization – even upon first exposure to a stimulant drug.
“What this paper is showing is that unpredictable conditions may cause sensitization,” Vezina said. “There are activities that may play just as important a gateway role as drugs, and gambling may be one of them.”
The result fits with classic neurobiological data in primates showing that dopamine neurons in brain reward areas are most excited by unpredictable rewards. More research would be required to determine whether the dopamine neurons of rats in the variable ratio are more excitable relative to their fixed-ratio peers, but that may account for the increased response to amphetamine, Vezina said.
Outside of the laboratory, the findings may also be significant for states (such as Illinois) that are considering opening more casinos to offset budget shortfalls. A neurobiological link between gambling and drug addiction, such that engaging in one makes a person more vulnerable to the other, could mean that the human costs of increased access to casino gambling could outweigh the monetary revenues.
“When more governments at the city and state levels are arguing for the development and the building of more casinos, this is really something that could place more and more people at risk,” Vezina said. “So the more we understand about this from the behavioral through to the molecular, cellular and biochemical levels, the more we could argue against the type of policy arguments that are being made, and ultimately be in a better position to provide therapeutics.”
Singer BF, Scott-Railton J, & Vezina P (2011). Unpredictable saccharin reinforcement enhances locomotor responding to amphetamine. Behavioural brain research PMID: 21924296