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Medical Facts Behind Gambling Addiction

Former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor's $1 billion gambling addiction was blamed on a tumor, but what are the medical facts behind problem gambling? David Peters, a family therapist in San Diego, explains.


Dr. Marc A. Norman, Ph.D. Associate Professor University of California San Diego

David Peters, Family Therapist


Photo credit: 10News

Former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor appeared in federal court and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in which she acknowledged misappropriating millions of dollars from her deceased husband's charitable foundation, February 14, 2013.

The headlines were almost unbelievable. A billion dollars wagered, millions lost—and the legacy of one of San Diego's most popular mayors forever tainted. The legal consequences of Maureen O'Connor's gambling, the charges of embezzlement from her late husband's foundation, have apparently been worked out. But the question remains, how does something of that magnitude happen?

O'Connor's attorney says it was partially due to a brain tumor.

Dr. Marc A. Norman, an assistant clinical professor in neuropsychiatry at UC San Diego, told KPBS he has never seen a tumor lead to problem gambling, but said it is possible.

"There are a lot of behaviors that may come out and it's not very predictable," he said. "So you may see changes in striking out at people, in arguing with people, and sexual behavior, all types of things. Gambling is certainly within the realm of behavioral change we may see with a brain tumor."

A tumor can cause a number of changes in the brain and behavior, depending on where the tumor is located and the type of tumor, he said.

"Because some tumors grow very quickly and create a very profound and quick change and other changes may be very slow and almost imperceptible in that they grow very slowly," he said. "So a lot of it depends on location."

O'Connor's attorney also said her problems led to "grief gambling" because it followed a series of losses in her life.

David Peters, a family therapist in San Diego, said that explanation is "not unbelievable at all."

"What happens is with many addictions and compulsive behaviors, they serve to cover or override an uncomfortable emotion," he said. "If someone is struggling with a grief reaction and they are not successful at it, then maybe they isolate themselves, they may be into a clinical depression and they may fill the emptiness inside by something that arouses them, be it food, gambling, cocaine."

The legal agreement requires O'Connor to get treated for gambling addiction.

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.

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