They call it the “rat casino,” but in this case, it’s not a rundown gambling parlor in Atlantic City or some blighted corner of downtown Las Vegas.
It’s a perfectly respectable laboratory in the psychology department at Miami University in Ohio. The researchers there are working to develop a drug to treat gambling addiction. But how, exactly, do you get rats to simulate the behavior of a desperate gambler pushing the button over and over again on a slot machine?
A team of psychologists led by Dr. Matthew McMurray has installed flashing lights and casino sounds just to give it a little ambience. The “gambling” rats are given two options: They can paw a lever and receive one sugary treat every time or they can touch another lever and receive three, but only some of the time. Researchers even modify the probability of the risky reward, just like some slot machines have better odds than others.
The healthy rodents get pretty good at making the optimal choices, but the stressed-out rats — those who had been put through a 15-day “stress paradigm” in which they are subjected to unpleasant experiences meant to mirror the stressors of human life — take the riskier option far more regularly.
In a soon-to-be-published paper financed in part by biotech firm PsyBio Therapeutics, Miami University researchers will announce that the stressed-out lab rats showed better decision-making when they were treated with a derivative of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
The rats, by the way, don’t go on a trip. The hallucinogenic part has been chemically removed.
“If we expose those rats to chronic stress, we see their decision-making gets bad. They prefer the risky option regardless of its probability, just like a gambling addict,” McMurray said. “When we treat those stressed animals with psilocybin, their decision making gets much better.”
Drugs part of solution to problem gambling?
Up to now, problem gambling treatment has been a mishmash of prevention, psychotherapy, and intervention — all extremely useful tools, particularly when combined with the increased visibility of responsible gambling practices. However, mental health workers in other addiction fields have found that pharmaceuticals can augment those efforts. While drugs such as Acamprosate and and Naltrexone have been developed to treat alcoholics or drug abusers, none of them has proven particularly effective to treat gambling addiction.
That’s where McMurray and his team at Miami’s Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lotteries, and Sport come in. Former Ohio state Sen. Bill Coley was among the power brokers who helped get the institute off the ground in 2021 and remains involved.
“The early studies are just fascinating,” Coley told Sports Handle’s Matt Rybaltowski at a recent conference. “People who are on that drug choose the delayed gratification because of the longer-term benefit.”
While the psilocybin treatment option is not yet cleared for human testing, McMurray said he’s hopeful it could be in a matter of months.
Oxytocin treatments also being evaluated
Miami researchers have found that chemical derivatives of the hormone oxytocin also have shown promise in treating gambling addiction.
Oxytocin derivatives are used for a variety of treatments, including for autism and schizophrenia as well as to help new mothers with lactation and to induce delivery in pregnant women. Oxytocin’s ability to crowd out the effects of another hormone, dopamine, on the brain seems to be part of the mechanism.
“When you’re gambling, if you win that slot machine spin and you get the big payout, you get this huge surge in dopamine. What we think is happening is the oxytocin derivative is tempering the huge surge, so the highs are a little lower,” McMurray said. “In people with gambling disorders, the resting dopamine levels are really low. Normal things aren’t as rewarding. Their day-to-day happiness isn’t as strong as it was before. They need those big hits to get their dopamine levels up.”
McMurray said corporate support will be crucial in getting physicians to prescribe the oxytocin treatments or to push the psilocybin treatments into clinical trials. He estimates it will be at least three years before psilocybin-based treatments are available for gambling addicts.
“We need companies to take drugs into this new marketplace, especially with the psilocybin-based therapies,” McMurray said. “Depending on the level of corporate involvement, it could be anywhere from a year to 20 years. I really have no idea. But we need new forms of treatment for this very complex disease.”