Scientists Looking Into Implants, Nasal Sprays to Combat Gambling Addiction

Posted on: January 8, 2018, 01:00h. 

Last updated on: January 8, 2018, 08:37h.

It’s no secret that while most adults have no problem enjoying gambling responsibly, a small percentage of people can develop addictions that cause them to become compulsive gamblers.

problem gambling implant spray
Dr. Casey Halpern is studying whether brain implants could reduce the urges felt by compulsive gamblers. (Image: Stanford Health Care)

But scientists around the globe are looking into ways to treat or prevent these problems, with a couple of unusual solutions making headlines just this week.

A team at the Stanford University Medical Center released a paper last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences which explored the potential for using brain implants to prevent addictive and impulsive behavior.

Led by Dr. Casey Halpern, an assistant professor of neurosurgery, the research team found that electrical signals in the brain could predict some pathological behaviors.

Electrical Pattern Precedes Addictive Behavior

The team studied mice that had learned to overeat fatty foods. Halpern and other researchers found that these was a distinct, recognizable pattern of electrical activity in the mice brains that occurred just seconds before they would start to gorge on the foods.

The researchers then implanted electrodes into the brains of the mice. After delivering a 10-second electrical pulse into the region of the brain known for activating for pleasure and rewards, they found that the overeating in the mice was dramatically reduced.

The researchers then found similar patterns in the brain of a man who already had a brain implant to treat a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This suggested to the team that a similar mechanism was present in humans.

“Imagine obese people or pathological gamblers who are bankrupt, or even a depressed patient who has the impulse to commit suicide,” Halpern told NBC News. “I suspect not everybody [would want one], but you’d be surprised how many are willing to get these implants because it could improve their quality of life tremendously.”

Medicine Used to Treat Overdoses Could Help Problem Gamblers

If an implant seems a bit extreme to you, then you might be more interested in the research being considered by Finnish health experts. The team is planning a study that will see if a common nasal spray that is used to treat opiate overdoses could also help prevent obsessive gambling issues.

So far, 30 participants have volunteered for the study, though researchers are hoping for up to 130 subjects.

The naloxone nasal spray is generally offered as a prescription medicine, and has been used to prevent deaths from opiate overdoses. In 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a hand-held injector for non-medical settings that has become a key tool to prevent overdose deaths in many American cities.

The same spray has been used in the past to treat other addictions as well, but it has never been tested on problem gamblers. Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare has previously found some benefit for gamblers from the use of naloxone pills, though they think a nasal spray could be faster acting and more effective.

“If you really want to play, you can use the spray and the urge will go away,” said research professor Hannu Alho. “Preventing the urge with medicine might help them not to play or play for just a bit and then stop.”

According to Rehab International, about 2.9 percent of American adults are considered problem or pathological gamblers.