For most people, gambling is fun and winning is associated with feelings of pleasure and excitement. Neurobiologically, gambling is associated with activation in the “reward centre” of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, and release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is also involved in other pleasurable activities, such as intake of specific foods, use of drugs, sex or shopping.

It is a common finding that pathological gamblers tend to overestimate their own winning probabilities, and brain imaging studies have shown that these patients release dopamine at the mere expectation of winning, rather than when actually winning. The consequence is that pathological gamblers perform worse than healthy players in skill-based games, such as poker.

The Research Clinic on Gambling Disorders is conducting a study on the differences in probability estimation and brain activation between healthy and pathological gamblers. Dopamine release at the expectation of a gain regardless of outcome may explain why pathological gamblers continue to gamble despite the significant financial losses and life problems that arise as a consequence of this behaviour. Knowledge of such brain mechanisms is essential to understand the disorder and optimise treatment. The study is carried out in collaboration with the Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University.