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Wednesday, 8 November, 2000, 18:56 GMT
Gambling 'as addictive as smoking'
Gambling changes hormone levels in the body
Gambling can be as addictive as smoking, drinking and drug taking, say researchers.

A team from the University of Bremen studied the physical changes that took place in men playing the card game blackjack.

Their findings run contrary to the belief of many addiction researchers who refuse to accept that behaviour can be physiologically addictive.

I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction

Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University
New Scientist magazine reports that the German researchers recruited ten gamblers from a casino and asked them to play blackjack, staking their own money.

While the gamblers played, the researchers measured changes in their heart rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

He then asked them to play for points rather than money, as a "control" situation.

Both heart rates and cortisol concentrations were markedly higher when the gamblers played for money.

Lead researcher Dr Gerhard Meyer conceded that the study did not provide definitive proof that gambling is addictive.

This is because there is no proof that raised cortisol levels necessarily has an impact on key chemicals in the brain such as dopamine.

However, he pointed out that the gamblers themselves report feeling surges of euphoria when they place bets.

Echoes of drug addiction

This echoes the euphoria experienced by drug takers, which results from a surge of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

Dr Meyer said: "The theory behind addiction is that if you consume an [addictive] substance, more dopamine is released than normal, and this is what happens when people consume drugs or alcohol.

"When people gamble, they say they feel this euphoria through a behavioural surrogate. Cortisol may contribute to such mood alterations."

Dr Meyer even speculates that such findings might reduce the culpability of people who have committed crimes.

If lawyers can attribute their clients' crimes to physiological cravings rather than acts of free will, they may receive lighter sentences.

Mark Griffiths, an expert in behavioural addiction from Nottingham Trent University, said: "Some people say you can't have addiction unless you take a substance, but I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction.

"If you accept that, you then accept that sex, computer games, even gardening, can be addictive - it opens up the floodgates to everything else."

The research is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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See also:

11 Sep 00 | Health
Smoking addiction 'sets in early'
09 Jun 00 | Health
The nature of addiction
08 Feb 00 | Health
'Treat nicotine as a hard drug'
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