By Published: Aug. 5, 2021

Before putting $20 down on the table, audit your mental health, researchers from the Institute of Behavioral Science suggest.

Gambling activities are more readily available than ever, but the availability could play into potential problem gambling and addiction based off one’s genetics, according to new research from the University of Colorado Boulder. 

In a study published in Addictive Behaviors, the researchers found that individual’s genetics, psychiatric diagnoses and behaviors influence the frequency in which a they gamble, the specific activities they participate in, and the probability that they will develop problems with gambling.

Institute of Behavioral Science
Spencer Huggett is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and an author on the paper. He is also a postdocral trainee at the Insitute of Behavioral Genetics.

Gambling addiction affects roughly two million people per year and yet much about what causes the addiction to arise is relatively unknown given the complexity of the data. This new research, though, provides some insight on the relationship of genetics and addiction.

"The types of gambling that you do and your current mental health matters, and how much you gamble all depends on whether you develop problematic outcomes from it," Spencer Huggett, (PhDPsych’19), a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and an author on the paper, said.

“Certain people are more prone to develop problems gambling and/or to engage in certain types of gambling than others,” he said.

Huggett and Evan Winiger (PhDPsych’21), the study’s co-author and a postdoctoral fellow at Anschutz Medical Campus, were roommates as they both pursued their doctorates in behavioral, psychiatric and statistical genetics. Winiger studied cannabis and Huggett, studied cocaine. Through living under the same roof, scientific, technical and philosophical conversations on addiction and genetics ensued. One of these conversations led them to asking questions about gambling and its addictive properties. 

“We hypothesized that there’s going to be some common feature to all types of gambling from playing poker and betting on slot machines to buying lottery tickets and day trading in the stock market. Although we did not think this would fully recapitulate the complexities and nuances across all forms of gambling,”. Huggett said. “We thus set out to study clusters of gambling behavior — particularly those involving an element of ‘skill’ — to investigate and characterize the developmental pathways of gambling behavior.” 

Institute of Behavioral Science

Evan Winiger is the study’s co-author and a postdoctoral fellow at Anschutz Medical Campus researching cannabis and sleep.

To assess these potential phenomena, they utilized the Institute of Behavioral Genetics’ library of complex datasets and pulled the large twin and sibling sets. The sibling sample was selected based on externalizing behaviors, and the twin sample provided a general population overview. They used multi-dimensional statistical techniques on a sample of 2,116 twins and 619 siblings to understand the structure, typology and etiology of gambling frequency.

“This study is a genetically informed evaluation of different gambling profiles,” Winiger said. “There’s some research out there trying to categorize different kinds of gamblers, and our study is kind of another approach showing this might be a different way to look at these different subgroups as well as how certain classes or subgroups might correlate with various mental health or substance use.”

Their study identifies four gambling subtypes distinguished by their gambling behavioral profiles (or how often they gambled). According to the study, the gambling subtypes with the highest rates of psychiatric disorders had approximately two to six times higher rates of problem gambling than those with lower rates of mental illness. Genetics play an important role in the development of gambling behavior, the researchers said, noting that the gambling subtypes with highest rates of problem gambling were strongly predicted by genetic factors. The individual’s mental health, genetic risk plus their gambling behavioral profiles determined whether or not problematic gambling behaviors would arise, the researchers found. 

The study also found that individuals participating in common gambling activities such as betting on slots, playing dice and buying lottery tickets were more likely to lead to problem gambling than gambling with a perceived element of skill gambling such as day trading and playing pool for money.

Huggett and Winiger applied the Pathways Model, an established model within gambling research that determines problem and pathological gamblers, which defines three possible pathways that individuals begin to experience problems with gambling. The three pathways are behaviorally conditioned problem gamblers, emotionally vulnerable problem gamblers, and antisocial impulsivity problem gamblers. 

“What we really wanted to understand was, ‘is there a profile of certain gambling activities that clusters into broader mental health subtypes?’” Huggett said “We did find evidence that this was the case. Certain types of gamblers based off of the activities that they prefer tended to mimic some of these more popular pathways to gambling addiction.” 

In the discussion of the study, the researchers mention that their examination of personality disorders and gambling should be approached with caution due to the wide spectrum of gambling activities and behaviors. This study does, though, supports the connection between genetics to personality disorders and gambling addiction.

“This is an extremely big pie of mental illness and gambling and the thing that we did was the smallest little sliver,” Huggett said. “We wanted to shed light in that pie so we can have a better understanding and hopefully use this information to tailor more proactive approaches and potentially tailored treatment profiles to the individual.”