Published as:

Dopamine D3 receptors modulate the ability of win-paired cues to increase risky choice in a rat gambling task.”

MM Barrus, CA Winstanley, Journal of Neuroscience.

Download the paper here


Cues associated with drug use can create feelings of craving and desire in drug addicts, and have been shown to cause relapse. Cues are also a significant component of many forms of gambling, and it is likely that they can have strong effects on behaviour, though little research has been performed on the subject. Research in the Winstanely lab a model of gambling for use with rodents called the rodent Gambling Task (rGT). The rGT allows animals to choose between options that are associated with varying levels of risk and reward; the optimal strategy on the task is to choose an option with a relatively small reward but also infrequent punishment. Most animals adopt an optimal strategy and perform well on the task, while some behave in a riskier manner, preferring a high-risk, high-reward strategy, much like a high-stakes human gambler. 

However, I designed a version of the task where wins on the high-risk options were paired with flashing lights and jingles, which made animals more risky. Furthermore, pharmacological work showed that this bias towards risky choice and cues is dependent on the dopamine D3 receptor, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to be important in addiction. These findings demonstrate the significance of cues to risky, gambling-like behaviour, and point to the specific brain mechanisms responsible for this behaviour, suggesting a potential target for therapeutic treatment of problem gambling.


Select press coverage:

CBC: Rat casino offers UBC researchers insight into gambling addiction

Vice News: This Rat Casino Shows Us Why We Love to Gamble

Wired: Scientists built a 'rat casino' and it made rodents riskier gamblers

Daily Mail: Why the bright lights of a casino make you bet MORE: Flashing signs disorientate gamblers causing them to take higher risks

Science Daily: Flashing lights, music turn rats into problem gamblers