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Researchers Intrigued by Physical Signs in Compulsive Gamblers

October 17, 1986

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Compulsive gambling may be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and its withdrawal symptoms are similar to those of alcohol and narcotics addicts, experts say.

About 2.5 million of the estimated 80 million Americans who gamble do so compulsively, said Dr. Robert Custer, director of compulsive gambling treatment at Taylor Manor Hospital near Baltimore and Charter Hospital in Las Vegas.

″They have so much energy. They’re so competitive. They’ll gamble for days without stopping. The average person couldn’t handle that,″ he said in an interview Thursday.

Eventually, the obsession and mounting debts catch up with them, driving them into a ″desperation″ phase that can lead to crime and suicide attempts, said Custer and other speakers at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Custer, who has treated or evaluated more than 800 compulsive gamblers, is working with researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health on a study seeking to link compulsive gambling to low levels of serotonin, a substance brain cells use to communicate.

A study of murderers found lower serotonin levels in those who killed impulsively than those who planned the killings, he said.

Custer is studying spinal fluid from compulsive gamblers to look for abnormal levels of serotonin and similar substances.

If a chemical deficiency is linked to the gambling, chemical treatment might help, he said.

In another project, researchers at the Philadelphia Psychiatric Center and other hospitals are collecting information on withdrawal symptoms among compulsive gamblers forced to stop, said Vincent Rinella, director of clinical program development at the center.

The object is to compare the intensity and duration of such symptoms as vomiting, sweating, nausea, tremors and cramps to experiences of alcoholics and narcotics addicts going through withdrawal, he said.

″What we’re really trying to see is how similar the addictions are,″ looking for clues for further research and treatment, he said. Such information also makes ″more credible the idea that the gambling is a true addiction.″

Robert Klein, administrative addictions coordinator at the center, said gambling withdrawal symptoms can last days and can occur in up to 70 percent of compulsive gamblers.

Rinella said compulsive gamblers are typically very bright, with an average IQ of up to 130, and are competitive and athletic with high energy levels.

They also are prone to overeating, alcoholism, drug abuse and heavy smoking, he said. About 22 percent of known compulsive gamblers have attempted suicide, he said.

Little is known about what causes the condition, but he said risk factors include identification with a gambling parent or absence or loss of a parent before age 15.

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