The Italian Almanac

the devil of gambling

Compulsive Gambling

An Italian researcher believes she has cracked brain mechanisms that make people want to continue gambling even when the odds are against them and the consequences are disastrous.

Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatry lecturer at Pisa University, has carried out two studies on compulsive gambling, an increasingly worrying disorder that has been likened to drug addiction or alcoholism. In the first, she put a set of compulsive gamblers and a control group of non-gamblers through a barrage of mental tests. The only difference emerged in the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WSCT). Whereas the non-gamblers learned from their mistakes and stopped making them, the gambling addicts simply couldn't.

''This is a sign of cognitive rigidity, a dysfunction that lies in the prefrontal cortex, the brain's control centre,'' Marazziti said. The prefrontal cortex regulates behaviours such as eating and sex. It is sometimes called the 'pleasure centre' or 'reward pathway'. Marazziti said 'targeted treatment' such as behavioural therapy might address this problem.

In the second test, Marazziti found lower levels of the nerve transmitter serotonin in addictive gamblers. As well as being the 'feel-good' substance that is very low in depression, serotonin is ''an inhibitor of reckless behaviour,'' Marazziti said.''This explains their irrational impulsiveness.''

Marazziti's study on cognitive rigidity has been published in the journal Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health. Her other one, on serotonin and rash behaviour, is set to be published in another prestigious US journal, Neuropsychobiology.

Compulsive gambling, also known as pathological gambling, is defined as being unable to resist impulses to gamble which can lead to severe personal or social consequences. The disorder usually begins in early adolescence in men, and between ages 20 and 40 in women. It has become an increasing problem in recent years with a sharp rise in online gambling, a spread of poker machines in bars and hotels and the explosion of poker games on satellite TV and the Web. This destructive type of gambling is on the rise all over the world.