Rat casino offers UBC researchers insight into gambling addiction

Scientists at UBC discovered rats behaved like problem gamblers when sound and light cues were added to a "rat casino" model.

Flashing lights and music turn rats into problem gamblers

Insights gained from turning rats into problem gamblers may one day help humans with gambling addictions. (UBC)

So, a rat walks into a casino ...

What sounds like the start of a lame joke is in reality the premise behind serious research carried out by a group of UBC scientists who wanted to know if rats would respond like humans in a casino-like setting.

Turns out they do.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, discovered rats — just like people  became more engaged in casino games when music and flashing lights were added. 

The effect was enormous

"It seemed, at the time, 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," said Catharine Winstanley, associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

The rats were trained to gamble for sugary treats and would normally avoid the high-risk options when playing their rat casino game. But that changed with the addition of lights and sounds. 

"I was surprised not that it worked but how well it worked," said Michael Barrus, PhD candidate in the UBC Department of Psychology. "We didn't realize it would shift decision making so much, making animals that were usually good so much worse at making choices."

Proves what game designers have known for years

Winstanley says the research proves what game designers have known for years — that sensory stimulation helps keep players engaged, even if they're losing.

The researchers also discovered they could correct the problem gambling behaviour by using drugs to block a specific dopamine receptor in the rats' brains, something that could lay the groundwork for future gambling addiction treatments in humans. 

"This particular drug has shown a lot of promise as a potential treatment for addictions," said Winstanely.