January 20, 2016 4:28 pm
Updated: January 20, 2016 11:53 pm

UBC study shows flashing lights and music turn rats into problem gamblers

WATCH: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have made a surprising discovery that could pave the way for new treatments for problem gambling. Linda Aylesworth explains.


Even though the subjects were rats gambling for sugary treats, a new study by scientists at the University of British Columbia shows adding flashing lights and music in the background encourages risky decision-making.

Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, UBC researchers were trying to understand the nature of addictive behaviour and what it is about gambling that leads to a compulsive need to gamble in some individuals, which is very similar to drug addiction.

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In their study, they found rats behaved like problem gamblers when both sound and light cues were added to their gambling scenario or “rat casino” model. Further research also found the scientists were able to reverse the behaviour by blocking a specific dopamine receptor. It’s a result that could possibly lay the groundwork for treatment of gambling addictions in humans.

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, and is a chemical released by neurons or nerve cells that sends signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.

“It seemed, at the time, like a stupid thing to do, because it didn’t seem like adding lights and sound would have much of an impact. But when we ran the study, the effect was enormous,” said Catharine Winstanley, UBC associate professor of Psychology and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

“Anyone who’s ever designed a casino game or played a gambling game will tell you that of course sound and light cues keep you more engaged, but now we can show it scientifically.”

Their “rat casino” used sugary treats as currency and while the rats normally learned how to avoid risky options in the experiment, that all changed when the scientists brought in music, flashing lights and tones. While the scientists weren’t surprised the tactic worked on the rats, they were astonished about how well it worked.

The next step in the experiment also provided enlightening. When the researchers gave the rats a drug that blocked the action of a specific dopamine receptor that is linked to addiction, the rats no longer acted like problem gamblers. And the dopamine blockers had minimal effect on rats who gambled without the flashing lights and music cues.

Winstanley said she doesn’t think it’s “an accident that casinos are filled with light and noise,” but believes their research has shown a lot of promise in treating gambling addiction.

“We think we’ve created a better model of behaviour relevant to gambling addiction and we hope by studying what makes animals choose those risky options we will provide new insight into potential therapies for gambling disorders,” she said.

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