You dirty rat. You dirty, gamblin’ rat.
I am referring, of course, to those dirty gamblin’ rats over at the University of British Columbia. It seems researchers at this institution have proven that rats gamble just like humans.
Alright, the goal of the study wasn’t just to see if a rat will take the hard-8 bet in a game of craps. (They will, every time, by the way.) The goal was to identify what neurotransmitters or brain chemicals are involved in regulating gambling behavior, be it in rats or humans. Or humans who also are rats. But I digress.
The study was funded partly through a grant from the National Center for Responsible Gaming, which is delving into the science of what drives the gambling impulse, for the purpose of identifying, preventing or treating compulsive gambling disorders. It’s only because it involved rats that it ends up as fodder for “Frankly Speaking.”
And rightly so. Research projects involving gambling primates have provided the very backbone of this column, and if I didn’t pass up the gambling monkeys last year, I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on the gambling rats this year.
The monkey story last year was a godsend. Nothing funny was happening the day my column was due, and there it was-some scientists hooked monkeys up to machines and put them in front of what was really a makeshift slot machine, to see if the monkeys-they’re really nature’s nightclub comics, aren’t they?-would risk a sure thing for a shot at a more rare, but much larger reward.
Put another way, it was essentially a study to see if a monkey would bet the hard 8. Turns out they did. Repeatedly.
And now, after the latest study, it appears a rat will take the hard 8 as well.
The study was published in the popular scientific journal Neuropsychopharmacology. As you may suspect, I never miss an issue. Dr. Catharine Winstanley (yes, “Win, Stanley”), one of the study’s authors, called it “an important first step in offering clues into what neurotransmitters or what brain chemicals are involved in regulating gambling behavior.” Not to mention one more wired-up critter being permitted to enjoy gaming entertainment.
(OK, you PETA people out there… Come on. The other option for the rats was to root around in garbage somewhere or die inhaling poisonous fumes from an exterminator. At least here, they got a shot at a buffet comp.)
Our gamblin’ rats (I think they were bused in from North Jersey) were given four options that differed in the probability and the generosity of the rewards. The high-stakes option offered a bunch of sugar pellets with long “penalty periods” between rewards. Lower-stakes options yielded fewer pellets with more frequency.
According to the study, the rats “learned how to be successful gamblers.” According to the article in (wait for it) Neuropsychopharmacology, the rats “selected the option with the optimum level of risk and reward to maximize their sugar-pellet profits over time.”
I can’t remember the last time I walked away from a casino with a sugar-pellet profit. But I’m sure it was someplace with a slot club that offered same-day pellet-back rewards.
Now that I think of it, the monkey study last year reached a conclusion similar to the rat study this year-both primates exhibited human-like gambling behavior. I do believe a monkey/rat slot tournament is in order. Or, at least a new painting to replace the poker-playing dogs.
But in any event, they weren’t done messing with the rats yet. The study also found the rats’ decision-making abilities were significantly impaired when they were stoned. They gave them little rat drugs, to affect their levels of dopamine.
It was no surprise that hopped-up rats made bad decisions. (Isn’t that always the way? I’ve always said you can’t trust a hopped-up rat.) But the good news: Some of the drugs actually controlled the gambling impulses of the rodents, which is being viewed as a potential breakthrough that could lead to new treatments for problem gambling in humans-even those humans who are not rats.
So, what have we learned here? We’ve learned that there is hope for new treatments related to problem gambling. We have learned that gambling primates are not only good companions for a visit to a casino, but can serve as useful subjects in important scientific research.
But most of all, we’ve learned that rats and monkeys are suckers for the longshot bet.
Now, that’s information we can use. Thanks, Neuropsychopharmacology!