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Brain Damage and Addictive Behavior: A Neuropsychological and Electroencephalogram Investigation With Pathologic Gamblers

Regard, Marianne PhD; Knoch, Daria PhD; Gütling, Eva MD; Landis, Theodor MD

Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology: March 2003 - Volume 16 - Issue 1 - p 47-53
Original Article

Background Gambling is a form of nonsubstance addiction classified as an impulse control disorder. Pathologic gamblers are considered healthy with respect to their cognitive status. Lesions of the frontolimbic systems, mostly of the right hemisphere, are associated with addictive behavior. Because gamblers are not regarded as “brain-lesioned” and gambling is nontoxic, gambling is a model to test whether addicted “healthy” people are relatively impaired in frontolimbic neuropsychological functions.

Methods Twenty-one nonsubstance dependent gamblers and nineteen healthy subjects underwent a behavioral neurologic interview centered on incidence, origin, and symptoms of possible brain damage, a neuropsychological examination, and an electroencephalogram.

Results Seventeen gamblers (81%) had a positive medical history for brain damage (mainly traumatic head injury, pre- or perinatal complications). The gamblers, compared with the controls, were significantly more impaired in concentration, memory, and executive functions, and evidenced a higher prevalence of non–right-handedness (43%) and, non–left-hemisphere language dominance (52%). Electroencephalogram (EEG) revealed dysfunctional activity in 65% of the gamblers, compared with 26% of controls.

Conclusions This study shows that the “healthy” gamblers are indeed brain-damaged. Compared with a matched control population, pathologic gamblers evidenced more brain injuries, more fronto-temporo-limbic neuropsychological dysfunctions and more EEG abnormalities. The authors thus conjecture that addictive gambling may be a consequence of brain damage, especially of the frontolimbic systems, a finding that may well have medicolegal consequences.

Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zürich, Switzerland; and Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland.

Received August 22, 2001;

revised October 8, 2001 second revision October 23, 2002; accepted November 12, 2002.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Professor Marianne Regard, University Hospital, Department of Neurology, Neuropsychology Unit, CH-8091 Zürich, Switzerland; E-mail:

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.