Veni NWO grant for research on gambling

Guillaume Sescousse studies the biological basis of gambling addiction. Recently he was awarded a Veni NWO grant to explore an exciting new path that has thus far received little attention.

In a previous study that Guillaume and I ran it soon became clear that gambling in the lab differs quite a bit from gambling in the real world. This may come as no surprise. Still, in this type of research, we ask gamblers and non-gamblers to play gambling-related games in the MRI scanner. A remark we often got from our gamblers: ‘Why don’t you scan my brain while I’m playing a real slot machine? That feels so much different from these games in the lab.’ Another issue with research on gambling is that there are different types of gamblers. People get addicted for different reasons. Still we consider them as one group. It’s these two issues that Guillaume will address using his Veni NWO grant.

‘Real’ gambling in the lab?
We can’t take an MRI scanner and bring it to the casino to study ‘real’ gambling on the spot. Quite unfortunate if you’re trying to unravel the biological basis of gambling addiction. But even if you could, this approach would not be optimal. Guillaume: ‘Gambling involves many different processes: weighting potential outcomes, making decisions, processing feedback, updating predictions, etc. And this does not include the many distracting lights and sounds that are part of many casino games. All these processes lead to activity in different areas of the brain. The whole brain would light up as it were. We wouldn’t see the wood for the trees in such brain scans. So to better understand gambling addiction we have to break it down to its subprocesses and study those separately. They may not feel like real gambling anymore, but it is the best we can do in the lab.’

Motivation to gamble
Also, gambling is more than getting behind a slot machine and play the game. What comes before, the motivation to gamble, might be even more relevant for understanding gambling addiction. Why does someone get behind that slot machine over and over again? One may gamble to suppress negative emotions, another may do so for the rush. Guillaume: ‘If we ask gamblers to come to the lab, that chain of events (for example: negative emotions → gambling) is missing, so we can’t study someone’s true motivation to gamble. As a result we lump all gamblers together. We consider them as a uniform group.’ But according to Guillaume it is these differences in motivation between gamblers that are important to better treat gambling addiction in a personalized way. ‘And this motivation we can actually measure in daily life.’

App for daily gambling behaviour
Using a smartphone app, Guillaume wants to measure the true motivation of gamblers in daily life. Gamblers will be asked a couple of times a day about their urge to gamble, their emotions and how much they actually gambled. Guillaume would like the gamblers to do this for a couple of weeks in a row to gain insight in the emotions and urges preceding ‘real’ gambling. This way he hopes to distinguish between different types of gamblers. ‘Then we will look at how this information from daily life relates to brain measures we take in the lab.’ So back to gambling in the lab after all, but this time complemented with measures from daily life. 

This post was written by Lieneke Janssen, a PhD student at the Motivational and Cognitive Control lab, and was previously published in Dutch on Donders wonders.