Gambling Addiction in the Brain

Gambling Addiction

Americans love to gamble. Whether it’s betting on the Super Bowl, playing the slot machines in Las Vegas, or buying lottery tickets, we get a thrill out of it. For most people, it’s an occasional recreational activity that doesn’t affect everyday life. For some, excessive gambling becomes a serious problem that ruins financial well-being, devastates relationships at home and at work, and impacts mental health.  In fact, about 1% of the population develops a gambling disorder, which is considered a behavioral addiction. How can some people have fun gambling occasionally while others develop a compulsive gambling addiction? It all depends on the brain.

About 1% of the population develops a gambling disorder, which is considered a behavioral addiction. How can some people have fun gambling occasionally while others develop a compulsive gambling addiction? It all depends on the brain. Click To Tweet


What are the signs that you might have a gambling problem? In general, if gambling interferes with your life in any way, then it’s a problem. Signs that you may have a problem include:

  • Keeping your gambling habit a secret from loved ones
  • Experiencing a high from placing large bets
  • Using gambling to escape from everyday problems
  • Feeling compelled to gamble to relieve feelings of discomfort
  • Gambling even though you’re in debt
  • Having trouble in your relationships due to gambling
  • Getting in trouble with the law or failing to pay bills
  • Acting in ways that are out of character, such as lying or stealing
  • Continuing to gamble despite the consequences

If you or a loved one has any of these warning signs, it may be time to seek professional help and to investigate the factors that may be contributing to the problem.


Several factors can increase your risk for pathological gambling.

  • Adolescents and teens are more likely to develop a gambling addiction than adults. Approximately 1%-7% of young people have a serious problem compared with just 1% of adults, according to a 2021 study in The Lancet. In this study, 11% of kids ages 11-16 said they had gambled money in the previous 7 days and 36% of youngsters in that age range had done so within the past year. Gambling is also more prevalent among college students with an estimated 6% meeting the criteria for a serious problem.
  • Gambling problems are more common in men than in women. A report from Australian researchers on the differences in gambling behavior between the sexes concluded that the lifetime prevalence of a gambling disorder was twice as high in men compared with women. According to their findings, males are more likely to engage in race wagering, sports betting, electronic gaming machines, and table games while women are more apt to gamble on raffles, sweepstakes, and competitions.
  • Brain health issues. It is common for individuals with a gambling problem to have other psychiatric or behavioral issues, which neuroimaging shows are really brain health issues. In fact, individuals with psychiatric conditions are 17 times more likely to have a gambling disorder, according to a study in Psychological Medicine. A review of 36 scientific studies found that gambling problems are associated with high rates of other conditions, including ADD/ADHD, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), personality disorders, psychotic disorders, and more.
  • Research suggests that there is a heritability factor in gambling addictions. A meta-analysis of 18 twin studies in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that gambling disorders are 50% due to genetics.
  • Environmental factors. Living near casinos, being in close proximity to racing venues that allow betting, or having friends who gamble may contribute to increased risk for a problem. The meta-analysis in Frontiers in Psychology mentioned above also found that gambling disorders are 50% due to environmental factors.


In the human brain, drive circuits in the deep limbic system motivate you to seek out things that bring you pleasure. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) acts as the brain’s brake by providing impulse control. These two systems work together to create the self-control circuit.

When the self-control circuit is healthy, the deep limbic system supplies an appropriate dose of motivation so you can go for your goals, while an effective PFC provides impulse control and good judgment to keep those drives in check.

Also playing a role in the self-control circuit is the neurotransmitter dopamine, which acts as a motivator to pursue your passions in life. Again, a strong PFC acts as a braking mechanism so you don’t get out of control.

When these brain regions and neurochemicals are in balance, it helps you resist urges to gamble. It’s what helps you keep gambling, or any other addictive behavior or substance, from becoming a problem.

When the PFC is underactive—whether it’s due to past head trauma, a condition such as ADD/ADHD, exposure to toxins, infection, or other underlying causes—it can create an imbalance with the drive circuits and lead you to lose control over your behavior. Having low activity in the PFC often results in a tendency for impulse-control problems and poor self-supervision.


Researchers have been studying addicted drive circuits in the brains of substance abusers for many years. Thanks to a growing body of brain-imaging studies, they are now seeing similar brain patterns in people with behavioral addictions, also called process addictions, such as gambling.

  • Decreased prefrontal cortex function: At Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior, people with addictions, including compulsive gambling, tend to have low activity in the PFC. Other research confirms this finding. For example, in a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry People with a gambling disorder had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity during a gambling task compared to healthy controls.
  • Increased dopamine: One study looking into the role of dopamine in gambling behavior found that during gambling tasks, greater amounts of dopamine are released in people with a gambling disorder. One surprising finding in this study is that in pathological gamblers, more dopamine is released when they lose money rather than when they gain money. This may help explain why some people continue gambling despite losses.
  • Impaired decision-making and risk-taking: Findings from a clinical trial show that pathological gamblers have decision-making deficits and take greater risks compared to healthy controls.
  • Reduced gray matter volume: Brain-imaging research in Addiction Biology found that individuals with pathological gambling problems have deficits in gray matter volume in the frontal cortex. These deficits are similar to those seen in people with alcohol and substance use disorders.


To overcome a gambling problem, it’s important to enhance PFC function to improve impulse control and help rebalance the self-control circuit. Here are 7 natural ways to boost your PFC:

  • Engage in high-intensity aerobic exercise
  • Consider neurofeedback training
  • Meditate
  • Eat a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet
  • Set goals to increase willpower
  • Know your motivation to stop gambling
  • Consider taking nutritional supplements, such as rhodiola, omega-3 fatty acids, ashwagandha, and green tea extract

Overcoming gambling addiction, or any other addiction, requires a comprehensive approach that includes biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors. In addition to strengthening your PFC, look at the other areas of your life that also need improvement and optimize them.

Gambling disorders, other addictions, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. This article doesn't mention stock market gambling, which can be a very real behavioral addiction. The signs of the disorder are the same, and the consequences just as devastating.

    Comment by Sara — April 7, 2023 @ 7:39 AM

  2. Additionally reaching out to 1-800-Gambler to learn how others have fought their battle with gambling is highly recommended. Family, friends and others who have been affected by someone who has a gambling problem can reach out to

    Comment by Cassy — April 7, 2023 @ 7:41 AM

  3. I would like to get help

    Comment by Susan West — April 8, 2023 @ 7:03 PM

  4. Hello Susan, thank you for reaching out. For more information about brain SPECT scans and our services, please contact our Care Coordinators:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 17, 2023 @ 10:00 AM

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