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A researcher tries to make sense of problem gambling

Luke Clark, inaugural director of the Centre for Gambling Research at University of British Columbia, is photographed in Vancouver, January 28, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Luke Clark's drive to understand the psychology of gambling once spurred him to use an MRI to observe the brains of experimental subjects while they played slots.

Tricky stuff, the faculty member from the University of Cambridge's psychology department explained Tuesday after he was named the first director of the new Centre for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia.

"The volunteer is lying on a bed as they are slid into a magnet. Then the task is shown on a monitor behind the magnet," Dr. Clark, a graduate of Oxford University, said at a conference on responsible gambling sponsored by the B.C. Lottery Corporation.

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"There's a button box on the stomach. You're playing the game." The scientists monitored the subjects, taking images of their brain responses as they played.

Tuesday was Dr. Clark's third visit to Vancouver. The mastermind behind some of the largest British studies of pathological gambling has yet to try his luck in a B.C. casino.

"This is a young area of science," he said of his work. "We're really trying to draw together what we know about the brain during decision-making, during reward-processing and the actual thoughts gamblers have during play and what's going on in their body and the excitement that occurs. Linking those three together is a very new field."

Why is he trading Cambridge for UBC? "The [centre] is a unique opportunity to energize research in this area," he said. "There are a lot of strengths within UBC in addictions research, psychology, decision-making and social psychology."

The point is to come up with cutting-edge science to help bolster B.C.'s efforts to deal with problem gambling – the dark side of an industry that generates more than $1-billion a year for provincial coffers.

The province is spending millions to encourage responsible gambling. It will contribute $2-million jointly with the B.C. Lottery Corporation to the centre.

Dr. Clark is promising independent research despite financial support from partners that benefit from gambling.

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"We very much welcome the funding that the B.C. government and BCLC have provided here, but UBC has been very careful to ensure full academic independence of the centre," he said.

"Most people understand that our postsecondary institutions operate in a very autonomous and independent way. That's what we want," said Finance Minister Mike de Jong, who introduced Dr. Clark at Tuesday's conference.

Once Dr. Clark settles in this summer, he plans to recruit problem gamblers for research into affection for risk and distorted thinking during gambling. Brain imaging will be on the agenda. Some of this work has already been done on campus, but Dr. Clark plans to step it up.

And he does sometimes try his luck at the pursuit that defines his academic career.

"I gamble now and then. I am not a regular gambler," he said. "I have no luck."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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