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Maureen O’Connor Blames Brain Tumor for Gambling Addiction That Wiped Out Fortune

The high-profile case of a big city mayor turned big time gambler is raising questions about behavioral addictions and what causes them.Former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor has admitted to losing more than $100,000 a day as her addiction to video poker took hold, but she believes a brain tumor was partly to blame for her actions.

“It's just like a drug addict,” she recently told CBS. “You have to have the fix. It was like electronic heroin: The more you did, the more you needed and the more it wasn't satisfied.”

Behavioral addictions are those that do not involve a dependency on a chemical substance such as a drug or alcohol. They can include things like shopping, sex, gaming, eating, and in the case of the former mayor, gambling.

Behavioral Addictions

Most professionals working in the arena of addiction, including psychologists and psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and treatment facility care workers, do not consider behavioral addictions to be  true addictions. The difference seems to be that drugs and alcohol are chemical substances that cause chemical changes in the brain, leading to addiction and physiological symptoms of withdrawal. Addiction professionals prefer to call the behavioral variety simply compulsions or obsessions. Most are not  considered to be psychiatric disorders.

More research, however, is beginning to elucidate the true nature of these obsessive behaviors and finding similarities between chemical dependence. People with obsessive behaviors tend to follow the same pattern as addicts: the behavior gives them pleasure, so they seek it out again and again until negative consequences result. They even experience cravings and some types of withdrawal when they cannot engage in the behavior.

The Mayor’s Gambling Addiction

O’Connor admitted to stealing more than $2 million from her late husband’s charity foundation to fuel her video poker habit. Her prosecution is being delayed while she attempts to repay the debt. It is estimated that she may have won up to a billion dollars, but lost even more over the last decade. If she can repay the debt and if she seeks treatment for her gambling compulsion, the charges against her may be dropped.

O’Connor’s lawyer said her troubles began after her husband, Robert Peterson, founder of Jack in the Box, died in 1994. She apparently engaged in “grief gambling.” This behavior became worse after she lost other family members. She began playing video poker in casinos in San Diego, Atlantic City and Las Vegas in 2001. With the millions she inherited from her husband, O’Connor was a known as a high roller. The casinos flew her in on private jets just to play, and, in her most successful years, she won millions, according to the IRS.

O’Connor was also diagnosed with a brain tumor during that time. Her attorney, Eugene Iredale, said the tumor affected the portion of her brain "that controls logic and reasoning and, most important, judgment." The tumor was removed in 2011.

There is a possibility she had something physically wrong in the brain that caused her gambling surge. ABC News:

Dr. Joshua Bederson, chairman of the neurosurgery department at Mt. Sinai in New York, said O’Connor’s claim of her gambling addiction being a symptom of her brain tumor is uncommon but possible.

“Since we know there are brain areas that are responsible [for the assessment of risk and reward], it is conceivable that some sort of disturbance caused by a brain tumor could influence those functions, as well,” said Bederson, who has not worked with O’Connor.

Patients with brain tumors that affect their risk and reward assessment can have other symptoms as well, Bederson said, including memory loss, lack of inhibition and difficulty concentrating.

During her gambling years, her habit caused her to lose her entire fortune, at which time she stole from her late husband’s charity to fund her habit. She now lives with her sister.

Prosecutors maintain that O’Connor’s habit began long before the tumor and that it cannot used as an explanation for her behavior.

Tumors have the capability of changing brain chemistry by releasing or inhibiting certain neurotransmitters or signaling chemicals, experts say. These are involved in feelings of reward, satisfaction, and motivation for behaviors. There have been previous cases in which a tumor was shown to have caused deviant behaviors such as pedophilia, and even the mass shooting carried out by Charles Whitman in Austin, Texas, in 1966.

While it is true that tumors can result in changes to behavior, whether this can be used as a legal argument remains to be seen. Many legal experts agree that such a case may lessen legal responsibility, but not mitigate it. For instance, a serial killer may not be able to help the fact that he has a psychiatric disorder that leads him to kill people. He is still responsible, however, for his behaviors in a court of law and is punished.

As research into behavioral addictions continues and cases such as O’Connor’s arise, we will learn more about the brain, how it works, and how it responds to certain changes. The relationship between physical and chemical factors and behaviors should be continually explored and challenged.

Posted on April 1st, 2013

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