Gambling, which involves the interplay of risk, reward and chance, has captivated humans for many years. This activity triggers a series of intricate processes in our brains that contribute to its thrilling and, sometimes, addictive nature.

The mesolimbic dopamine system, also known as the reward pathway, is essential for the brain’s response to gambling. This system involves the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reinforcement, into the nucleus accumbens, a brain region linked to motivation and reward.

When individuals anticipate a potential win, dopamine is released, creating a sense of euphoria and reinforcing the desire to continue gambling.

Research has revealed that the brain’s reaction to close calls in gambling is surprisingly comparable to its response to actual victories. Specifically, when a gambler experiences an outcome that is just shy of a win, the brain perceives it as a partial success, leading to the release of dopamine and contributing to the addictive nature of the activity. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as the near-miss effect, is a potent psychological mechanism that keeps individuals engaged in gambling even when they do not fully succeed.

The anticipation of rewards, processing of emotional experiences, and evaluation of risks and rewards all contribute to the allure of gambling

The brain’s response to gambling is heavily influenced by the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and risk-reward assessment. In gambling, the prefrontal cortex is critical in evaluating odds, making strategic decisions and managing emotional responses to wins and losses. However, in individuals with gambling disorders, abnormalities in this area can lead to impaired decision-making and increased impulsivity.

The amygdala, a structure resembling an almond and positioned deeply within the brain, plays a crucial role. Its primary function is to process emotions, focusing on fear and pleasure. In gambling, the amygdala activation is linked to the emotional peaks and valleys experienced during the game. Winning or losing can elicit strong emotional reactions, and the amygdala assists in processing and storing these emotions, ultimately enhancing the gambler’s overall experience.

The insula, a brain region involved in bodily self-awareness and emotional processing, is activated during gambling. It plays a role in signalling the physiological responses associated with wins and losses, such as changes in the heart rate and skin conductance. The insula’s involvement contributes to the somatic marker hypothesis, suggesting that emotions and bodily sensations guide decision-making. In gambling, the insula helps to create a link between emotional experience and the decision to continue or stop playing.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, also plays a significant role in the response of the brain to gambling. Serotonin is associated with mood regulation and its levels can be affected by both wins and losses during gambling. Fluctuations in serotonin levels may contribute to the emotional highs and lows experienced by gamblers, influencing their overall mood and potentially contributing to the development of gambling-related disorders.

At a structural level, repeated engagement in gambling can lead to neuroplastic changes in the brain. The reward pathway may undergo adaptation, making individuals more susceptible to the reinforcing effects of gambling. This neuroplasticity can contribute to the development of addiction, where the brain becomes increasingly wired to seek pleasurable experiences associated with gambling.

In conclusion, the brain’s response to gambling involves a complex interplay between neurotransmitters, brain regions and neural pathways. The anticipation of rewards, processing of emotional experiences, and evaluation of risks and rewards all contribute to the allure of gambling. Understanding these neural mechanisms is crucial for developing interventions and treatments for individuals struggling with pathological gambling, shedding light on both the exhilarating highs and potentially detrimental laws of this ubiquitous human behaviour.


Kayne Said is communications manager at the Responsible Gaming Foundation. He can be contacted on

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