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A customer at a slot machine at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, February 22, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Researchers at the University of British Columbia are about to start studying how gambling influences the human brain and how it affects "risk-based decision-making" by gamblers who can't seem to quit, even when they are losing steadily.

Those and other issues surrounding the psychology of gambling addiction are to be the focus of a new centre for gambling research that was announced on Thursday.

The centre, expected to open in September, is being funded with a $2-million investment from the B.C. Lottery Corp., which manages the province's government-run gambling industry, and by the B.C. government.

Rich Coleman, Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas, whose ministry oversees gambling, said the province is a leader in pursuing "responsible gambling strategies" to help people prevent or deal with gambling addiction.

"This centre will provide the innovative research we need to ensure British Columbians have the best problem-gambling prevention and treatment programs, so they can enjoy gambling responsibly," Mr. Coleman said.

Gambling pours more than $1-billion a year into provincial coffers in B.C., providing money for everything from little league baseball teams to hospital wards.

But there has been a long-standing debate about whether it has an overall negative or positive impact on society. A study in 2008 estimated B.C. has 159,000 problem gamblers, including about 31,000 whose issues are severe.

About 4,000 calls a year are made to a gambling help line, and thousands of people sign up annually to a voluntary exclusion program that BCLC uses to keep addicted gamblers out of its casinos.

UBC said it will search for an internationally recognized expert in addiction research to head the centre, which will be in its department of psychology.

"This leading scholar will expand and leverage existing gambling research, which explores the relationship between rewards and human behaviour, gambling's influence on our brains and risk-based decision-making," said the UBC statement.

"Much of how gambling impacts our brains and behaviour is still a mystery – so there's a lot of important work to be done on this issue," Alan Kingstone, head of UBC's psychology department, said in a statement.

He said only a few centres worldwide are dedicated to research on gambling psychology and problem gambling.

Michael Graydon, president and CEO of BCLC, said he's excited by the UBC project, which he expects "will help us tailor programs and support services to meet the specific needs of British Columbians, while advancing global understanding of this field."

Editor's Note: Next week, Globe BC launches The Big Gamble – a five-part series on casinos and the province's complicated relationship with them. We start Monday with the politics behind casinos. Tuesday we look at the money trail – where do all those dollars go once they enter the public coffers? Wednesday we examine the hidden costs of addiction and crime. Thursday, find out the fate of native-run casinos. Friday, we go behind the scenes of B.C.'s biggest and most successful casino – River Rock in Richmond. Follow the series all week in Globe B.C. and online at starting Monday morning.