Bruce Alexander, a researcher from Simon Fraser University, has done some amazing work on addiction and the causes of it, turning traditional thinking about addicts on its head.
We all learned about how when rats in a cage were exposed to morphine that they would choose to keep self-administering the morphine until they die. The crux of that study, created by Prof. Avram Goldstein, was that the addiction was the main cause of the rats’ decision to self-medicate. According to Goldstein’s conclusion, nothing else influenced them, not their environment, not their background, it was simply that the high was so good that they would keep doing it until they literally couldn’t take it anymore. Therefore we need to eradicate the drug itself, not focus on any other issues that may be a factor. This study was a huge influence on the War on Drugs as well.
Alexander’s work shows that there is much more to the story. He created an experiment called Rat Park in which the rats were given a huge amount of space to play and nest and eat. In almost every circumstance when given the choice to use the morphine or to play with their friends or stay at their house, they all chose to give up the morphine. Once their lives had promise, and they weren’t trapped in a tiny cage with no other options, they all chose to enjoy life rather than self-medicate it away.
Alexander’s hypothesis was that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to it is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself. He told the Canadian Senate in 2001 that prior experiments in which laboratory rats were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus, show only that “severely distressed animals, like severely distressed people, will relieve their distress pharmacologically if they can.”
To test his hypothesis, Alexander built Rat Park, an 8.8 m2 (95 sq ft) housing colony, 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. The results of the experiment appeared to support his hypothesis. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. “Nothing that we tried,” Alexander wrote, “… produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” Control groups of rats isolated in small cages consumed much more morphine in this and several subsequent experiments.
So, rats born in small cages, with no real alternatives were way more likely to self-medicate than ones living in Rat Park. Tom Stafford of the BBC writes:
The results are catastrophic for the simplistic idea that one use of a drug inevitably hooks the user by rewiring their brain. When Alexander’s rats were given something better to do than sit in a bare cage they turned their noses up at morphine because they preferred playing with their friends and exploring their surroundings to getting high.
Further support for his emphasis on living conditions came from another set of tests his team carried out in which rats brought up in ordinary cages were forced to consume morphine for 57 days in a row. If anything should create the conditions for chemical rewiring of their brains, this should be it. But once these rats were moved to Rat Park they chose water over morphine when given the choice, although they did exhibit some minor withdrawal symptoms.
You can read more about Rat Park in the original scientific report. A good summary is in this comic by Stuart McMillen.
Isn’t it nice when scientific theory lines up so nicely with common sense? To think that socioeconomic status and living conditions have nothing to do with wanting to self-medicate is just ridiculous. Imagine if we took the trillions of dollars that we waste on the war on drugs and used it to target the conditions that make people more likely to choose that path. That’s probably a little too much common sense for it to be viable solution in the government though.
h/t Garry Tan