What happens inside the brain of a gambling addict when they make a bet?

What happens inside the brain of a gambling addict when they make a bet – and can the secret to their addiction be found within the brain itself? BBC Panorama filmed a unique experiment designed to find out.

Wendy Bendel’s partner killed himself after struggling with a 20-year gambling addiction. In a confession he wrote for Wendy he singled out the high-stakes, high-frequency fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) found in bookmakers across the UK. These machines offer gamblers a choice of games, and combine potentially high stakes with the chance of a win every 20 seconds. Join Wendy on tonight’s Panorama, as she seeks to find out why these machines can be so addictive, and are so controversial.

We arranged for gambler Tony Franklin to join a unique experiment by one of the world’s leading experts on addiction – Professor David Nutt.


Professor David Nutt is Director, Neuropsychopharmacology Division of Brain Sciences, Imperial College London.

Gambling addiction is not a failure of will. It is a brain disorder, which is preyed upon by the gambling industry.

“Honestly I can feel my heart beating, rising just looking at the damn thing!”

Once you’ve become addicted it’s very, very hard to stop because you’ve changed your brain. Addiction is a brain that has changed, to become entrained to the desires of the gambling.

This will be the first time anyone plays something similar to a fixed odds betting terminal from inside an MRI scanner.

The professor says it will reveal what’s happening in Tony’s brain as he uses a keypad to bet.

“I’ve got a thousand pounds to spend! Can I spend it all on the first spin?”

When Tony is doing his task, when he’s looking at the roulette wheel and he’s making a decision to bet part of the brain get turned on, and then they can’t stop and we think there’s probably a chemical basis to that. So that’s what we’re expecting to see, that the habit centers are over-activated in people with gambling addictions, compared with normal people like us.

1: Placing a Bet
The brain’s not very active – maybe a little bit here he’s thinking “what shall I do?” but it’s pretty calm. Contrast that with what happens in the next one.


2. The Roulette Spin
That’s a huge difference from there to there, so that’s in a matter of seconds?

Absolutely yes. So here we see the visual system, the back of the brain, intensely activated. He’s watching really closely, he wants that ball bearing to come down on his color. And now we look at the emotional regions, and these are different regions activated. This is the anterior singular cortex, this is the insular. And these are the two areas of the brain which make sense of emotions. They may generate the emotion he’s feeling, the excitement: “Will I win, Won’t I win?”


3: The Win
And here we see a very similar picture. In fact the only real difference between winning and anticipating is this area here. And this is an area where I think we see the sense of satisfaction.

Yes I’ve won, that’s good. Register that, start again. But overall, winning and waiting to see if you’ve won, the anticipation, they’re both pretty much the same. And that’s a really key point about gambling. It’s not just the winning that counts, it’s the taking part and the taking part repeatedly when you don’t win is as activating to a gambler as the winning.


When you’re sitting at a fixed odds terminal, you’re getting this every 20 seconds, so you can have hundreds of them. So that process, in the end it becomes habitual. It becomes addictive.

The Association of British Bookmakers told us:

“99.5 % of people who gamble, do so responsibly.”

“Gambling addiction is complex and multi-faceted, and as an industry we strongly encourage responsible gambling.”

3 thoughts on “What happens inside the brain of a gambling addict when they make a bet?

  1. David Nutt: “(quote) Gambling addiction is not a failure of will. It is a brain disorder, which is preyed upon by the gambling industry (/quote). There ar only two ways to consistently win at gambling. 1: Open a casino or a bookmaker shop and stack the odds against gamblers consistently winning. 2: Cheat.

  2. I have almost never gambled in my life, but I have a relative who is the manager in one of the many bookmaker chains. One day I asked him, “Why don’t you just place the same bets as the gamblers in your shop who generally win more than they lose. ” He replied, “Nobody consistently wins more than they lose.” He also told me that if such a person existed, it was part of his job to report that person to his higher managers, however, that has never happened yet.

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