Research at the University of Iowa finds gambling addictions tend to run in the family.

If you lost a large chunk of change thanks to the early exits of Syracuse or Kansas in the NCAA Tournament‘s first round late last week, you may be able to blame your parents for your misfortune.

Even if you’ve got money riding on this month’s tourney, chances are you’re not a compulsive gambler. However, if your mom, dad and grandparents are all viciously competing in a high stakes pool, you may have more to worry about.

New research conducted at the University of Iowa indicates that pathological gambling tends to run in families. While the findings don’t prove a genetic basis for being out 500 bucks because of Syracuse’s loss on Thursday or Kansas’ flub on Friday, they lay the groundwork for further studies into what risk factors increase the chances of becoming a problem gambler.

“Gambling is a social construct,” said psychiatrist Donald Black, the study’s lead author. “Problem gambling itself is not being transmitted, but perhaps some personality trait or characteristic that in our culture predisposes people to problem gambling is being transmitted—for example, being compulsive, or being a risk taker, or craving excitement.”

There is no one gene responsible for driving people to gamble, but there may be groups of genes that, together with environmental factors, raise the probability that a person will become addicted later in life.

The paper, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, is the first to include detailed interviews with problem gamblers and their family members. When researchers compared the families of diagnosed problem gamblers with those of a control group, they found strong statistical evidence that gambling was passed down within immediate families.

“It’s an important study even though it’s not a big surprise,” said Ken Winters, a University of Minnesota psychiatrist who has studied the treatment of substance and gambling abuse problems. “Other people have attempted to look at this connection but have had less strong and less rigorous research designs.”

With online casinos and televised poker tournaments increasing gambling’s visibility, there’s a greater need for preventing and treating gambling problems.

“The rate of problem gambling or the risk that someone could become a problem gambler is starting to increase in our culture because there are so many more opportunities,” said Winters. “Everyone is a click away from gambling.”

The Iowa study’s findings are not enough to help treat compulsive gamblers yet, but further research with larger samples should allow scientists to identify more clearly what factors raise the risk. Black recently received funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to conduct a much larger study, which he hopes will increase our understanding of how to treat compulsive gamblers.

“If additional studies pinpoint which personality traits seem to be transmitted, it could be useful for counseling problem gamblers and their family members,” said Black. “If you identify what traits are responsible for this, there may be some psychological techniques to counter that. Maybe there are certain medications that might dampen that tendency.”

Originally published March 20, 2006

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