Adding lights and music encouraged gambling rats to choose risky options in a so-called rat casino model.
"I often feel that scientific models are decades behind the casinos," says Catharine Winstanley. "I don't think it's an accident that casinos are filled with lights and noise."
Winstanley, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, was part of the team that conducted the study, recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
She and colleague Michael Barrus, PhD, say that similar to other addiction disorders - such as with drugs or alcohol - gambling cues are believed to play a significant role in mediating their addictive nature.
Although previous animal models of gambling behavior have involved aspects of economic decision-making, the researchers say they have not addressed the impact certain cues may have on encouraging risky behaviors.
As such, the team created a so-called rat casino, in which they tested 32 male rats that gambled for sugary treats. Although the rats typically learn very quickly how to avoid the riskier options, the researchers say that adding flashing lights and sounds changed their behavior.
Fear and loathing in Rat Vegas
Anyone who has ever visited a casino knows all too well the type of environment the researchers aimed to create for the rats. In his iconic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson sets the scene:
"Psychedelics are almost irrelevant in a town where you can wander into a casino any time of the day or night and witness the crucifixion of a gorilla - on a flaming neon cross that suddenly turns into a pinwheel, spinning the beast around in wild circles above the crowded gambling action."
Winstanley says when they were designing their experiment, "it seemed [...] like a stupid thing to do, because it didn't seem like adding lights and sound would have much of an impact. But when we ran the study, the effect was enormous."
The team found that adding lights and music to the gambling game encouraged the rats to choose "disadvantageous risky options," compared with the rats that gambled without lights and music.
"Anyone who's ever designed a casino game or played a gambling game will tell you that of course sound and light cues keep you more engaged, but now we can show it scientifically," says Winstanley.
She explains their study further in the video below:
Receptor-blocking drug curbs risky behavior
In the second part of their study, the researchers gave the rats a drug to block the action of a dopamine receptor that has previously been linked to addiction, called the D3 receptor.
Interestingly, when the drug blocked the receptor, the rats no longer exhibited the behavior of problem gamblers. However, the dopamine blockers did not seem to have much of an effect on the rats that were gambling without the lights and music.
"This brain receptor is also really important to drug addiction," says Barrus, "so our findings help support the idea that risky behavior across different vices might have a common biological cause."
In the US, unlike other mental health and addiction services, there is not a federal agency that funds and guides programs and policies to address the issue of problem gambling.
But this is a major problem for many people. In fact, over 80% of adults in the US gamble on a yearly basis, and out of every 100 gamblers, three to five have a gambling problem.
Furthermore, addictions across the board alter brain chemical functions, making people who struggle with gambling addiction more likely to develop a mental disorder.
Medical News Today previously looked into how gambling can be a problematic behavior.