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A fun night out in a Niagara Falls casino, an afternoon betting on a favourite sports team, even a simple scratch ticket – gambling is more prevalent in our society than many people realize.

For many, these activities tend to be harmless fun without any lasting consequences, but not everyone will be so lucky. A small subset of the population may be prone to developing an addiction to gambling, in many ways similar to substance use disorders.

Though substance-based addictions tend to be viewed as the most detrimental, non-substance-based addictions, such as gambling disorder, can have similar, negative health effects.

In fact, the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research (PBCAR), a partnership between St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and McMaster University, has been growing its capacity for research into this broader category of addiction to help identify the causes and develop novel treatment tools for clinicians. Researchers at the PBCAR have been studying tanning bed addiction, binge eating, excessive video gaming, as well as problem gambling.

“Gambling disorder is officially the first ‘behavioural addiction’ in the DSM-5,” said Dr. Iris Balodis, a PBCAR faculty member and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster. “Some of the research that we’re doing is showing similarities in the brain between substance-based and non-substance-based addictions.”

After establishing a gambling research laboratory at St. Joe’s in 2016, Dr. Balodis reached out to the City of Hamilton’s Alcohol, Drug & Gambling Services (ADGS) to collaborate at the clinical level. Social workers at ADGS were looking for plain language clinical handouts with easily-understandable, evidence-based responses for gambling addiction.

Dr. Balodis began working with Deirdre Querney, a registered social worker at ADGS. Together, they created Brain Connections, a project intended to help everyday people understand addiction and the brain.

“Our goal was to translate complex neurobiology research into plain language,” said Dr. Balodis.

The Brain Connections team produced numerous handouts that address a variety of topics related to gambling addiction, including why there is difficulty in changing an addictive behaviour, how addiction affects the brain, and what can be done to help those with addiction. The handouts are intended to comfort those with gambling addiction and help them avoid a relapse.

“The impact of these handouts has been tremendous. A variety of frontline healthcare professionals have told us that they feel far more confident addressing neurobiology questions now that they have these accessible, research-based tools,” said Deirdre Querney. “We have also had clients tell us that they feel less shame about their gambling problem because they understand that gambling addiction is rooted in the brain and not their moral character. They take comfort in the fact that the brain can heal from an addiction and that change is possible.”

With a further grant from the Gambling Research Exchange of Ontario, the Brain Connections team was able to develop an animated video and build a website full of patient resources. Their clinical handouts can be downloaded at www.brainconnections.ca.

“We hope that our efforts will not only help those suffering from a gambling addiction, but also work towards ending the stigma associated with non-substance-based addictions,” said Dr. Balodis.

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is recognizing National Addictions Awareness Week, November 25 to December 1, which highlights issues and solutions to help address addiction-related harm. This year’s theme is “Stigma Ends with Me,” with the goal of increasing awareness of the stigma that surrounds people suffering from addiction.

A $7.6 million donation made by the Boris Family established both the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research as well as endowed research chair focused on addiction. Since officially opening in 2014, the PBCAR has quickly become an international leader in collaborative translational research in a large and diverse portfolio.

 

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