BACKGROUND - Gambling urges in pathological gambling (PG) often immediately precede engagement in self-destructive gambling behavior. An improved understanding of the neural correlates of gambling urges in PG would advance our understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying PG and would help direct research into effective treatments.
METHODS - Echoplanar functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess brain function during viewing of videotaped scenarios with gambling, happy, or sad content. Participants rated the quality and magnitude of their emotional and motivational responses.
RESULTS - Men with PG (n = 10) reported mean +/- SD greater gambling urges after viewing gambling scenarios vs control subjects (n = 11) (5.20 +/- 3.43 vs 0.32 +/- 0.60; chi21,19 = 21.71; P<.001). The groups did not differ significantly in their subjective responses to the happy (P =.56) or sad (P =.81) videotapes. The most pronounced between-group differences in neural activities were observed during the initial period of viewing of the gambling scenarios: PG subjects displayed relatively decreased activity in frontal and orbitofrontal cortex, caudate/basal ganglia, and thalamus compared with controls. Distinct patterns of regional brain activity were observed in specific temporal epochs of videotape viewing. For example, differences localized to the ventral anterior cingulate during the final period of gambling videotape viewing, corresponding to the presentation of the most provocative gambling stimuli. Although group differences in brain activity were observed during viewing of the sad and happy scenarios, they were distinct from those corresponding to the gambling scenarios.
CONCLUSIONS - In men with PG, gambling cue presentation elicits gambling urges and leads to a temporally dynamic pattern of brain activity changes in frontal, paralimbic, and limbic brain structures. When viewing gambling cues, PG subjects demonstrate relatively decreased activity in brain regions implicated in impulse regulation compared with controls.