September 07, 2012

Research explores therapy for young gamblers

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Research by two Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty members show there are definite resemblances in the brains of young gamblers and drug users, and that therapy is effective for both.

The work by Mark Dixon and Reza Habib is drawing national attention, and will be the focus of Dixon’s new book, "Acceptance Therapy for Pathological Gamblers," set for release this fall. The book will offer a more in-depth perspective on Dixon and Habib's research and its implications.

Dixon, a professor in the Rehabilitation Institute, and Habib, an associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Psychology, received a $34,500 grant from the Institute for Research on Gambling Disorders to fund their study. The research involved examining the possibility of brain activity changes in pathological gamblers following acceptance-based psychotherapy, Dixon said.

Dixon and Habib evaluated the brains of a sizeable group of underage gamblers, including a number of college students, via functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. The results showed when the test subjects gambled on computerized slot machines their brain scans were very similar to brain scans of drug users when they are exposed to drugs.

The researchers then split the large group of gamblers into two groups, with only one group receiving therapy. Both groups then received new brain scans while again gambling on the computerized slot machines.

"Only those people we gave therapy to had altered brain activity upon rescanning. Their brains looked less 'addictive,'" Dixon said.  "This project shows that good therapy can actually change not only how someone might feel, but how their brain reacts to gambling. As a result, we seem to be changing 'addiction' in the brain with therapy."

Dixon and Habib say this is groundbreaking data. Their work has been cited in "Time" magazine, on National Public Radio's "This American Life," and in the book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg of the New York Times.