Behavioral addictions, such as pathological gambling (PG) and binge eating disorder (BED), appear to be associated with specific changes in brain dopamine and opioid function, but the role of other neurotransmitter systems is less clear. Given the crucial role of serotonin in a number of psychiatric disorders, we aimed to compare brain serotonergic function among individuals with BED, PG and healthy controls.
Seven BED patients, 13 PG patients and 16 healthy controls were scanned with high-resolution positron emission tomography (PET) using the serotonin transporter (SERT) tracer [11C]MADAM. Both region-of-interest and voxel-wise whole brain analyses were performed. Patients with BED showed increased SERT binding in the parieto-occipital cortical regions compared to both PG and healthy controls, with parallel decreases in binding in the nucleus accumbens, inferior temporal gyrus and lateral orbitofrontal cortex. No differences between PG patients and controls were observed. None of the subjects were on SSRI medications at the time of imaging, and there were no differences in the level of depression between PG and BED patients.
The results highlight differences in brain SERT binding between individuals with BED and PG and provide further evidence of different neurobiological underpinnings in behavioral addictions that are unrelated to the co-existing mood disorder. The results aid in the conceptualization of behavioral addictions by characterizing the underlying serotonin changes and provide a framework for additional studies to examine syndrome-specific pharmaceutical treatments.