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Rat Casinos

November 5, 2013

Miniature “casinos” built specially for rats are helping researchers understand gambling addiction in humans.



Rat casinos. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Fiona Zeeb)

Slot machines can rapidly lead to addiction. That’s due in part to near misses. When players get 2 out of 3 matching symbols, they erroneously think they’re getting better at the game even though the odds remain the same. So they keep on playing. Turns out, laboratory rats playing the rodent equivalent of slots – with flashing lights instead of symbols, and sugary rewards instead of cash – fall into the same mental trap. This according to University of British Columbia behavioral neuroscientist Paul Cocker.

PAUL COCKER (University of British Columbia):

They will press the collect lever erroneously when 2 of the 3lights are illuminated, which sort of corresponds to this idea of a near miss in humans.


But when the rats were given a drug that blocks the dopamine 4 receptor in the brain, their impulsive behavior declined. Dopamine is a brain chemical involved in reward. The findings could potentially contribute to treatments for gambling addiction in humans. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.