What are the Odds on Psychedelics Helping Gambling Addiction?
Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research is carrying out the world’s first study on psychedelic therapy as a cure for gambling addiction. Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a governmental body investing in science, researchers will offer psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to five volunteers with gambling addiction to test if the treatment is safe and effective. The Centre has so far demonstrated positive results for conditions like depression, PTSD, and alcoholism.
The volunteers will also undergo brain imaging to monitor patterns of brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). The study is being led by eminent psychedelic researchers including David Nutt, David Erritzoe, Matt Wall, and Rayyan Zafar.
As Zafar pointed out in an article for the Daily Mirror, “Only about three per cent of individuals who have got a gambling addiction actually receive professional treatment in the UK.” He added, “There’s a massive area of unmet clinical need so we’re hoping that psilocybin therapy may one day be used.”
Millions of People Are Gambling Addicts
Gambling addiction is common, and often serious. In the US, 1–2 percent of the adult population (2–4 million people) will experience a gambling disorder in their lifetime. Another 3–5 percent (5–9 million people) will at some point struggle with a gambling problem—gambling too much, but not enough to meet a psychiatric diagnosis.
While mostly harmless, gambling can turn into a harmful obsession. Gambling urges, tolerance, and withdrawal are akin to how many substance use disorders unfold. Indeed, brain imaging studies have found that gambling addiction activates the same brain pathways as drug and alcohol cravings.
Gambling disorder often entails severe financial and social ramifications. Distress about money – about spending, paying bills, or getting into debt – can occur alongside damage to relationships, deterioration in mood, and physical costs associated with distress. Often, people struggling with gambling addiction lie about or hide their gambling, making it hard to recognize.
There is much we don’t know about this addiction, including how best to treat it. However, as with other kinds of addiction, many researchers believe that psychedelics can provide some answers.
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The Need for Alternative Treatments and More Understanding
Treatments such as cognitive behavioral techniques can significantly reduce gambling addiction symptoms. However, there are roadblocks. People who try therapeutic treatment (which typically lasts 8–10 weeks) frequently drop out. The dropout rate is 39%, nearly double that of those seeking treatment for other mental health concerns (20%).
Of course, it’s important to learn why the drop-out rate is so high. But at the same time, it suggests that alternative treatment models that can offer substantial relief quicker may be part of the solution. This way, those with gambling addiction will be less likely to discontinue treatment and relapse.
Researchers have opined that the thinking and research about gambling addiction is about four decades behind where it is for alcohol addiction. There are several gaps in knowledge. We don’t know exactly how a gambling problem develops, how to conceptualize an addiction that doesn’t involve a substance, the long-term effects of gambling disorder, and the extent to which people maintain the improvements from treatment.
In addition, there is little funding to learn more about gambling addiction and how best to treat it. The US government barely funds such research. By way of contrast, in 2022, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invested over $570 million to study alcohol use problems. There is nothing in the NIH budget to study gambling.
However, research on psychedelic therapy for gambling addiction is helping to address these three gaps – in treatment, knowledge, and funding.
How Can Psychedelics Effectively Treat Gambling Addiction?
Studies have so far indicated that various psychedelic compounds, including psilocybin, can effectively treat addiction to alcohol, nicotine, opioids, cocaine, and cannabis. Many people have likewise found that psychedelics can help them overcome gambling addiction. One Redditor described in a post titled ‘Acid made me quit gambling’ how he had tried many times to quit gambling, which left him with little cash in their bank account. But he found an answer in LSD:
“During the time, my friend suggested that we should try LSD. … I took the acid with my friends…. During the trip, I realized what life was about and I should do my best to live a happy life. After the trip, I was processing myself and I didn’t have an urge to gamble. At that time, I didn’t really put too much thought about the fact that I don´t have these “urges”.
…I’ve done acid 5 times now. Some trips, more challenging than the others. But the outcome for me was that I got a new perspective on life, I finally feel that I am in the right place in life. Now, gambling seems like…a destructive habit, I didn’t care for the money, but the thrill of the risk. There is so much more to life. Gambling seems so insignificant. My urges are gone and when I am exposed to gambling (friend gambling on his phone, etc.), I don’t want to gamble. Currently, as I am writing this, I am 125 days clean. I couldn’t even stay away for 2 weeks in the past.”
How Can Psychedelics Help?
Study leader Zafar told Psychedelic Health: “Our tasks [in the study] were created to explore the hypotheses that in Gambling Disorder, there is maladaptive reward processing and neuroplasticity which are contributing to the pathology of the disorder. These tasks have been validated as part of my PhD and we know these areas are possible targets for psychedelics – we want to see whether psychedelics can target these systems involved in Gambling Disorder and whether that is how they lead to their therapeutic effects.”
Psychedelics like psilocybin increase neuroplasticity (the number and complexity of connections in the brain). Enhanced brain plasticity manifests during the psychedelic session itself and remains elevated in the following days and weeks. This creates a window of time – called a ‘critical period’, which is associated with the ‘afterglow’ feeling – in which psychotherapy is particularly effective. This promising effect of psychedelics can enable a person to break old patterns of thinking and behavior – including addictive patterns – and form new ones.
However, there are myriad reasons why psychedelics can help people overcome addiction and avoid relapse. A hard-to-break pattern of addiction often masks deep-seated emotional pain. One way that psychedelics work, in contrast to conventional drug treatments, is that they can move people away from emotional disconnection and towards emotional connection. Psychedelic therapy can help people confront, accept, and process the psychological pain that drives the urge to self-soothe with activities like gambling. This is a novel approach that can provide rapid and sustained changes for people, which is sorely needed.