The Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions coordinates the solicitation and review of research proposals for the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG). The Institute awards grants to non-Harvard institutions in the domains of social and behavioral science, and neuroscience. In 2002, the Institute announced a request for applications (RFA) for investigations of the neurobiology of gambling disorders. Although a young field, early research on the neuroscience research on gambling is encouraging. Studies have shown that pathological gamblers have altered dopaminergic and serotinergic functions (neurotransmitters related to mood and judgment). Bio-genetic vulnerabilities have been identified among pathological gamblers, and there is evidence to suggest that there may be genetic markers for novelty-seeking behavior among normal subjects that can predispose people to take chances. Finally, evidence from an NCRG-funded project at Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that there are common reward circuits in the central nervous system responsible for the experiences associated with the anticipation of the effects of substance use, the acquisition of money and the appreciation of beauty.
A distinguished panel of scientists convened in 2003 to review the 16 proposals submitted in response to the neuroscience RFA. The following projects were selected for funding:
- "Rules, Rewards, and Decisions in the Orbital Prefrontal Cortex," $170,291 (Principal Investigator: Charan Ranganath, Ph.D., University of California-Davis Center for Neuroscience). The investigation will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test hypotheses about cognitive processes that are likely to be impaired in individuals with gambling problems.
- "Functional MRI of Decision-making in Substance Abuse and Gambling," $172,500 (Principal Investigator: Jody Tanabe, M.D., University of Colorado Health Sciences Center). The investigation will examine the degree to which substance abusers with pathological gambling differ or resemble non-gambling substance abusers in their neurophysiological responses to decisions involving money.
- "Dopamine Release in Response to Monetary Reward Measured with Positron Emission Tomography," $156,634 (Alain Dagher, M.D., Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University). This investigation will use PET scans of pathological gamblers and healthy control subjects to understand the role of dopamine in the development of a gambling disorder.
In addition, the Institute is in the process of finalizing the contract for "A Population-Based Twin Study of Pathological Gambling," selected for funding of $172,201 in a previous cycle. Led by Kenneth Kendall, M.D., at Virginia Commonwealth University, the study will explore the heritability of pathological gambling, the relationship between pathological gambling and less severe gambling problems, and the genetic and environmental relationship between pathological gambling and major psychiatric disorders and personality traits.