Why the rat pack don’t do drugs

From awkward school seminars to the topical banter of South Park, we’ve all heard the message loud and clear ‘Drugs are bad….ok?’. And yes, as a rule messing with your brain chemistry is probably not a great idea. But, there are certain nuances surrounding drug use and addiction that you may not be aware of and which could have important implications for how we understand addiction and work with addicts.

Many of us may have heard about studies in the 1960’s involving lab rats and cocaine. In these relatively simplistic studies researchers offered caged rats a choice between regular drinking water and water laced with cocaine. Most animals studied didn’t just favour the drug-laced drinking water, they actively drank so much they eventually killed themselves. These shocking findings lead many researchers and politicians to believe that drugs such as heroine and cocaine were so dangerously addictive that they caused individuals to loose control over their own behaviour. And yes, these drugs can certainly be dangerous however, there was more to this story than these researchers realised.

In the 1970’s Bruce Alexander, a curious psychologist from Vancouver, noticed a big problem with this research. He recognised that all the rats studied in these addiction experiments were housed in small wire cages with no access to any of the things that make a wild rat’s life worth living (i.e. space to explore, a network of furry friends and lovers and things to play with). So Alexander re-ran these early experiments but with one important difference, his rats all lived in the lap of rodent luxury. These lucky rats were residents of Alexander’s Rat Park, where they had space to explore, tunnels to scamper through and friends to interact with. Amazingly, although the residents of Rat Park were curious enough to try drug-laced drinking water, most would then shun this water – consuming less than a quarter of the drugs isolated rats used; and, most importantly, none of Alexander’s rats died from overdoses.

On top of these findings Alexander also discovered that isolated and addicted rats which were subsequently released from their enforced isolation and introduced into Rat Park soon gave up their destructive habits in favour of a normal life.

So how does this change our understanding of addiction?

Professor Alexander argued that his discovery showed that addiction was more than simply a disease which chemically hijacked the brain, instead it could be an adaptation to an individual’s environment and social situation – i.e. addiction is not about you, it’s all about your cage.

In favour of Alexander’s ‘Rat Park theory’ we know that, although following an injury many individuals are prescribed the pain killer diamorphine (a medical name for heroin), we rarely have problems with these patients becoming addicts. Could this be because the patients are able to return home after their stay in hospital to loving supportive families and rewarding careers so no-longer need to rely on these drugs?

Although these finding are compelling and perhaps suggest useful social interventions with regard to treating addicts, it is still important to understand the limitations of the Rat Park and Alexander’s theory. Indeed, it is important to recognise that ‘Rat Park’ oversimplifies a complex societal and biological problem and that this oversimplification may not be beneficial. Research still suggests that certain people have a physical predisposition towards addiction and, despite living socially enriched lives, these individuals can still fall fowl to the addiction cycle. The myriad of research into the biological substrates of addiction could make-up a post in it’s own right, so I will attempt to cover this in more detail in a later article. However, for now it’s important to recognise that even though environment is likely to play a role in addictive behaviours, biology is also important in shaping our vulnerability to addictive drugs and our subsequent success in kicking the habits. This research should all be considered together if we really want to successfully tackle the problems raised by drugs in our society.

Post by: Sarah Fox

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