BOSTON - Scientists don't need to visit crowded casinos to prove that people get high on gambling - especially when they win.
Now, they've got brain scans showing that gambling activates the same regions of the brain as snorting cocaine.
A new study at Massachusetts General Hospital shows that a common mental circuitry - involving six small regions in the middle of the head - lights up during these two activities. That might help ultimately explain addictive behavior.
"We cannot distinguish any difference between the brain pattern of someone while gambling or ingesting cocaine," said Dr. Hans Breiter, a neuroscientist at Mass. General who previously monitored the brains of cocaine users. "And whatever areas are involved in addiction affects these regions."
The gambling study, published in the current journal Neuron, also shows that even the hope of a big win increased the blood flow to this region of the brain. Breiter said the research has implications far beyond addiction research.
In the future, companies might not have to rely on what consumers said when asked whether they like red or black sports cars. Brain scans would show preference.
"Imagine the implications for marketing," Breiter said.
His work is part of the thriving field of brain research, which targets the human response to everything from romance to religion. Breiter's work, done with other Massachusetts General colleagues, as well as scientists at Princeton University and Concordia University in Montreal, helps draw a line around those brain regions that might be involved in intense emotion, rewards and addiction, and lead to new treatments.
In the case of gambling, many people could benefit from more of this kind of research: In Massachusetts alone, roughly 250,000 people are believed to have a moderate gambling problem, such as losing a significant amount of money for their budget or suffering an emotional setback from betting, state officials said.
About 70,000 state residents are believed to be "compulsive" gamblers who would sacrifice food and shelter just to gamble. Therapists hope that new treatment will go beyond the Gamblers Anonymous self-help groups.
"All of this research advances our knowledge of the biological mechanisms involved in various addictions," said Dr. Paul Laffer, who runs a gambling addiction program at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.
"Perhaps new drugs will be developed as a result and become a piece of treatment."
Studying this region of the brain also could lead to insights about drug abuse. Breiter and others say drug addicts might have a faulty brain mechanism linked to judging life's rewards, and see cocaine or heroin as offering more reward than a meal.
Breiter said he and his colleagues hope someday to be able to distinguish the exact role of each of the six brain regions involved in rewards or pleasures. "This circuitry is at the core of everything we do," he said. "It's the information backbone for motivation."