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Vital Signs

Summer 2007

Seeking Treatment a Good Bet for Gambling Addiction

Americans are rolling the dice more than ever before—and playing cards, betting on the horses, buying lottery tickets, and partaking in any of the other seemingly ubiquitous wagering options. Placing bets has become both more acceptable and more accessible. Internet and wireless communications technologies are only making it easier.

For the vast majority of participants, gambling is recreation. But for approximately 2 percent of people who are susceptible to gambling addiction, it can wreak havoc, according to Timothy Fong, M.D., a UCLA psychiatrist and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. “Most people accept losing as part of the game,” explains Dr. Fong. “But for some, gambling causes problems in their lives. They rack up large debts and become preoccupied to the point that it interferes with their ability to function at work and at home.” 

Like alcoholism and drug addiction, gambling is a brain disease that can be treated, Dr. Fong notes. “We know there is a genetic component,” he says. “Pathological gamblers’ brains function differently—they have deficits in attention, memory and decision-making that distinguish their brains from the brains of social gamblers.” While most pathological gamblers recognize that something is wrong in their lives, a hallmark of the disorder is their inability to see that the gambling is the problem. Thus, it is often up to their family to raise the issue. But it’s not always easy for family members to detect when something is wrong until the consequences become impossible to hide. “Unlike drug and alcohol addiction, pathological gambling tends to be a hidden behavior,” says Dr. Fong. “You can’t easily tell when a person becomes intoxicated with gambling.”

Among the questions to ask: Has the family member or friend ever lied about his gambling, and has he felt the need to increase his bets to get the same thrill? A “yes” answer to either suggests the need for further probing about gambling behaviors, Dr. Fong notes. Much like drug addiction, pathological gambling is associated with certain brain characteristics that predispose people to addiction and prevent them from being able to recover on their own, Dr. Fong explains. But effective treatment for gambling addiction exists. These therapies are based on concepts currently used to treat substance abuse.

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