Measuring the odds

Greg Christie (BFA '05) knows his way around graphic-design programs. It just so happens he also knows his way around neuroscience research labs. While on paper his polar interests seem an unlikely pair, in practice Christie's love of art and science melds perfectly in his research that uses neuroimaging to study addictive behaviours.

After attending high school in Cochrane, Alta., Christie enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Calgary. It didn't take him long to realize he didn't want to be an engineer, so Christie transferred to the U of L to explore the artistic side of his science-inclined personality.

"I really liked computers and computer graphics, so I thought I would combine the technical with the artistic and study computer arts," Christie recalls.

Christie graduated with a BFA in computer arts in 2005 and worked as a professional graphic artist for two years before the lure of the science lab drew him back.

"I discovered that art is something I love to do as hobby, not a livelihood," Christie says. "I'm a scientist at heart. I knew the neuroscience program at the U of L was exceptional, and I loved my time here, so it was an easy decision to go back."

As a master's student in the neuroscience program at the U of L, Christie has been studying brain dynamics related to feedback processing. He conducts tests on subjects to see how their brains react during gaming activity, watching the electrical responses to both positive and negative feedback – what happens when people win, and when they lose. So far, Christie's research has focused on people who don't have any issues with gaming. Now, with a good understanding of the brain dynamics of that group under his belt, Christie feels the time is right to turn his focus to a group of people that epitomizes the study – compulsive gamblers.

Interestingly, compulsive gambling hasn't been unanimously accepted as a form of addiction in the scientific community. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (published by the American Psychiatric Association) lists pathological gambling under the category of impulse control. While the manual alludes to the fact that compulsive gamblers have other addictive tendencies, it does not label gambling itself as an outright addiction. Christie isn't comfortable with the sidestepping. He's out to show, one way or the other, if compulsive gamblers are afflicted with a problem beyond their control, and hopefully change public opinion about addiction in the process.

"There is a notion that willpower can overcome anything, that addiction is something people should be able to handle," Christie says. "We glorify stories of people who quit something 'cold turkey.' The reality of addiction is much more complicated than that. We don't really understand or legitimize addiction, particularly with compulsive gambling, because it hasn't been studied much. If we don't understand it, we can't really treat it."

Since returning to his scientific roots and to the U of L, Christie has dedicated his time and investigative talents to finding out why some people know when enough is enough, while others don't. Christie knows what should be going on in the brain during gaming; what he wants to find out is why it doesn't happen in certain individuals. Ask him why the research is important, and Christie doesn't hesitate in his response.

"I remember one day when a participant came into the lab," Christie recalls. "When I asked her if it would be OK to participate in a gambling experiment, she was contemplative for a minute and then agreed, saying that someone in her family was an addictive gambler. She obviously had great contempt for gambling, but agreed to participate in the study in the hope that it might help to find a solution to a problem that had greatly affected her. Compulsive gambling isn't just a problem for the gambler, it's a problem for their family and friends, too."

While Christie's research is geared specifically toward gaming, he sees the applications of his findings having much greater reach.

"We all receive dozens of positive and negative feedback messages every day," Christie says. "If you look at how you discipline your children, for example, some methods work and others don't. If you continue to use a method that doesn't show good results, you have to wonder why you go back to it."

The next phase of Christie's research took place throughout the spring 2010 semester. Findings are expected to be published in NeuroImage, a journal available on the U of L campus.

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