Executive function abnormalities in pathological gamblers

Abstract

BACKGROUND Pathological gambling (PG) is an impulse control disorder characterized by persistent and maladaptive gambling behaviors with disruptive consequences for familial, occupational and social functions. The pathophysiology of PG is still unclear, but it is hypothesized that it might include environmental factors coupled with a genetic vulnerability and dysfunctions of different neurotransmitters and selected brain areas. Our study aimed to evaluate a group of patients suffering from PG by means of some neuropsychological tests in order to explore the brain areas related to the disorder. METHODS Twenty outpatients (15 men, 5 women), with a diagnosis of PG according to DSM-IV criteria, were included in the study and evaluated with a battery of neuropsychological tests: the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), the Wechsler Memory Scale revised (WMS-R) and the Verbal Associative Fluency Test (FAS). The results obtained in the patients were compared with normative values of matched healthy control subjects. RESULTS The PG patients showed alterations at the WCST only, in particular they had a great difficulty in finding alternative methods of problem-solving and showed a decrease, rather than an increase, in efficiency, as they progressed through the consecutive phases of the test. The mean scores of the other tests were within the normal range. CONCLUSION Our findings showed that patients affected by PG, in spite of normal intellectual, linguistic and visual-spatial abilities, had abnormalities emerging from the WCST, in particular they could not learn from their mistakes and look for alternative solutions. Our results would seem to confirm an altered functioning of the prefrontal areas which might provoke a sort of cognitive "rigidity" that might predispose to the development of impulsive and/or compulsive behaviors, such as those typical of PG.

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