Pathological gambling and alcohol dependence: Neural disturbances in reward and loss avoidance processing

Abstract

Pathological gambling (PG) shares clinical characteristics such as craving and loss of control with substance use disorders and is thus considered a behavioral addiction. While functional alterations in the mesolimbic reward system have been correlated with craving and relapse in substance use disorders, only a few studies have examined this brain circuit in PG, and no direct comparison has been conducted so far. Thus, we investigated the neuronal correlates of reward processing in PG in contrast to alcohol-dependent (AD) patients and healthy subjects. Eighteen PG patients, 15 AD patients and 17 controls were investigated with a monetary incentive delay task, in which visual cues predict the consequence (monetary gain, avoidance of loss, none) of a fast response to a subsequent target stimulus. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data were analyzed to account for possible confounding factors such as local gray matter volume. Activity in the right ventral striatum during loss anticipation was increased in PG patients compared with controls and AD patients. Moreover, PG patients showed decreased activation in the right ventral striatum and right medial prefrontal cortex during successful loss avoidance compared with controls, which was inversely associated with severity of gambling behavior. Thus, despite neurobiological similarities to substance use disorders in reward processing, as reported by previous studies, we found relevant differences with respect to the anticipation of loss as well as its avoidance (negative reinforcement), which further contributes to the understanding of PG.

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