Pathological gambling is an addictive disorder characterized by a persistent and compulsive desire to engage in gambling activities. This maladaptive behaviour has been suggested to result from a decreased sensitivity to experienced rewards, regardless of reward type. Alternatively, pathological gambling might reflect an imbalance in the sensitivity to monetary versus non-monetary incentives. To directly test these two hypotheses, we examined how the brain reward circuit of pathological gamblers responds to different types of rewards. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we compared the brain responses of 18 pathological gamblers and 20 healthy control subjects while they engaged in a simple incentive task manipulating both monetary and visual erotic rewards. During reward anticipation, the ventral striatum of pathological gamblers showed a differential response to monetary versus erotic cues, essentially driven by a blunted reactivity to cues predicting erotic stimuli. This differential response correlated with the severity of gambling symptoms and was paralleled by a reduced behavioural motivation for erotic rewards. During reward outcome, a posterior orbitofrontal cortex region, responding to erotic rewards in both groups, was further recruited by monetary gains in pathological gamblers but not in control subjects. Moreover, while ventral striatal activity correlated with subjective ratings assigned to monetary and erotic rewards in control subjects, it only correlated with erotic ratings in gamblers. Our results point to a differential sensitivity to monetary versus non-monetary rewards in pathological gambling, both at the motivational and hedonic levels. Such an imbalance might create a bias towards monetary rewards, potentially promoting addictive gambling behaviour.
Keywords: addiction; functional MRI; pathological gambling; reward; striatum.