Hello Terrified fans! [more on rats and heroin]

I have no idea whether anyone will actually find their way to my blog because of it, but Dave Ross mentioned me on today’s Terrified podcast, and it kind of made my morning.

I listen to podcasts on my commute to and from work, and Wednesdays are always lovely because I get to look forward to new discussions with funny, interesting people about their fears, insecurities, and traumatic memories. And today when I flipped that on, I heard Dave talking about ME! Which was surreal as hell, but also kind of the greatest. Positive interaction with someone whose media I enjoy consuming FOR THE WIN! Woot!

Dave mentioned me on the podcast because he and I corresponded briefly after he stumbled upon the post I wrote awhile back about liking his show. Mostly he thanked me for saying nice things and I thanked him for bothering to thank me, but because I am a terrible nitpicky science nerd, I also took the opportunity to correct him about a psychology study that he mentioned in passing like, a million episodes ago.

Yes, I know. Keely Chaisson, ruining your fun with facts since… she obtained access to the internet? What a buzzkill, right?

Really. though, I didn’t bring it up just to be a know-it-all. The study Dave mentioned is misused in popular reporting ALL THE TIME, and I used to get it wrong too, so when I learned the full story, my mind was totally blown. The truth is totally more interesting than the oversimplified media soundbite.

So here’s the deal: you may have heard cited before the fact that lab rats will, if given the opportunity, administer heroin to themselves instead of food UNTIL THEY DIE. This is frequently cited in anti-drug manifestos and discussions of addiction. This, as I told Dave, is only partially true. I’ll let the psychology blogger that schooled me on this take it from here:

Many studies have shown rats and monkeys will neglect food and drink in favour of pressing levers to obtain morphine (the lab form of heroin). With the right experimental set up, some rats will self-administer drugs until they die. At first glance it looks like a simple case of the laboratory animals losing control of their actions to the drugs they need. It’s easy to see in this a frightening scientific fable about the power of these drugs to rob us of our free will.

But there is more to the real scientific story, even if it isn’t widely talked about.

The results of a set of little-known experiments carried out more than 30 years ago paint a very different picture, and illustrate how easy it is for neuroscience to be twisted to pander to popular anxieties. The vital missing evidence is a series of studies carried out in the late 1970s in what has become known as “Rat Park”. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, suspected that the preference of rats to morphine over water in previous experiments might be affected by their housing conditions.

To test his hypothesis he built an enclosure measuring 95 square feet (8.8 square metres) for a colony of rats of both sexes. Not only was this around 200 times the area of standard rodent cages, but Rat Park had decorated walls, running wheels and nesting areas. Inhabitants had access to a plentiful supply of food, perhaps most importantly the rats lived in it together.

Rats are smart, social creatures. Living in a small cage on their own is a form of sensory deprivation. Rat Park was what neuroscientists would call an enriched environment, or – if you prefer to look at it this way – a non-deprived one. In Alexander’s tests, rats reared in cages drank as much as 20 times more morphine than those brought up in Rat Park.

Inhabitants of Rat Park could be induced to drink more of the morphine if it was mixed with sugar, but a control experiment suggested that this was because they liked the sugar, rather than because the sugar allowed them to ignore the bitter taste of the morphine long enough to get addicted. When naloxone, which blocks the effects of morphine, was added to the morphine-sugar mix, the rats’ consumption didn’t drop. In fact, their consumption increased, suggesting they were actively trying to avoid the effects of morphine, but would put up with it in order to get sugar.

…read more at Mindhacks.com, “Drug Addiction: The Complex Truth”

As it turns out, Dave actually has some background in psychology and was already aware about the more complicated implications of the study, so I didn’t pass on anything all that meaningful to him, but he still shared it on the podcast. Which I’m happy about, if only because so many people have heard only the soundbite-version of this study, and the real findings have major implications for drug policy. If heroin was really so crazily addictive that it really hijacks survival instincts in any circumstances, maybe our public health goal really should be keeping people from ever trying it. [Importantly, this still would tell us nothing about whether prohibition is a practically ACHIEVABLE goal or appropriate from a personal-autonomy perspective, but it would inform us as to the severity of the risks to individual users.]  But if rats with happy, interesting lives aren’t all that into the stuff… maybe that indicates that at least part of the issue for at least some human heroin addicts is that their lives don’t give them sufficiently satisfying alternatives to drug use, and maybe fixing the conditions that predispose people to drug use (poverty, abuse, social marginalization) is an essential part of any program intended to reduce the negative impact of heroin on human societies.

Now, of course, this is not actually a mind-blowing concept to anyone with experience working with addicts. And we also shouldn’t only care about making the lives of marginalized people better because studies say that will reduce heroin use, obviously. Drug abuse is a complex societal issue, brain chemistry is only one part of the picture, and people are not lab rats. But I do think our discussions of many societal issues including drug abuse are meaningfully harmed by poorly done science, poorly reported science, and ignorance of science altogether. We should all be working from the same set of facts, and nuance is important.

I wrote in to correct Dave on this tiny, mostly-insignificant oversight not to be a pain, but because I saw a chance to maybe expose a few more people to complexities of neuroscience that I think need to be part of the discussion. A tiny victory, but at least until I come up with some amazing master plan for being a science educator to the public, letters like this one and prolific facebook and twitter postings of science-y awesomeness are how I do my part to make the world a tiny bit more science literate and accepting of nuanced understandings of biology and human nature. And I choose to feel good about that.