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Psychological science professor's work with rats gives insight into treatment for human drug addiction

James Baldwin wasn’t expressly talking about addiction when he wrote “that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less,” but the novelist and critic was trying to say something about our longing for connection and the competing desire to avoid self-reflection.

By the same token, the research Creighton University psychological science professor Dustin Stairs, PhD, is doing on addiction isn’t necessarily trying to get people to plumb their inner depths or find more friends, but through looking at individual difference models in laboratory rat populations, Stairs and his team of undergraduate researchers are making inroads into the neuroscience of addiction and the power of social settings to help overcome a drug habit.

“Most people try drugs,” said Stairs, who has researched and written extensively on the biological underpinnings of the abuse of such drugs as cocaine, methamphetamine and nicotine. “We’ve been looking at the question of what is it about those people that go on to addiction. Some of it’s genetic, some of it is personality, some of it’s social.”

Stairs said research has shown the thrill-seeking or high sensation-seeking personality type — the skydivers, the bungee-jumpers — to be more susceptible to addiction and there does seem to be a biological correlative among such personalities.

Working with rats, an animal with a similar social drive to humans, Stairs has found that rats raised in enriched environments with plenty of novel objects to use, and in social situations with two or more other rats, rats were less likely to avail themselves of available drugs they could take through jugular vein catheters. But in isolation, an environment inducing high-sensation-seeking in a rat, the animals readily take more drugs and more quickly show addictive like behaviors.

“We’re seeing that novelty exposure alters abuse potential,” Stairs said. “Then the question becomes what has changed biochemically in these rats that leads to them being more vulnerable to drugs of abuse.”

The hope is that some of the research with rats will be translatable for humans and, as the nation fixates on a crisis surrounding opiate addiction, Stairs is looking to move his research into that arena.

Making people aware of access to novel experiences is already being implemented in some places. Stairs said public-service announcements advertising safe but still thrilling alternatives to drugs — like skydiving or bungee jumping — are being tried in areas where drug abuse is at or approaching a level of public health concern.

“Boredom and the need for disinhibition is one of the biggest feelings that make someone susceptible to addiction,” he said. “We’ve seen the similar consistent effects in our rat models. Give them an alternative reinforcer when drug is available, and they’re less likely to self-administer the drug.”

There’s also some evidence that peer pressure or influence will affect a rat’s drug intake, much as it will affect a human’s decision to do or not do drugs. In a custom-made Skinner box holding two rats in separate chambers, a rat observing another rat self-administering drugs will often also take more drugs in a seeming effort to keep up with its partner. A rat observing a “teetotaling” or abstaining partner, however, will take less of the drug available to them.

One of the central components of Stairs’ research is showing how drugs can be powerful reinforcers that, in the case of addiction, overtake other social reinforcers like family, friendship, jobs and even the law.

“Once a person gets to the point of addiction the drugs themselves have usually become the sole means of reinforcement for the addict, so in terms of treatment you really must hit them with everything you can, such as pharmacotherapies, contingency management, cognitive behavioral therapy,” he said.

Stairs teaches a class each year on drugs and society, focusing on the science of addiction and drugs and behavior, but also the sociology of drug use and the debate over American drug laws and policy. He said he continues to be impressed by the conversations the class sparks and the different directions Creighton students take the readings, discussions and lectures.

“At Creighton, we can look at this as a social justice issue,” he said. “The students in the class have found value in it. For the undergraduates who work in my lab I am constantly looking for ways to help them see how what we do is translatable to people. It sounds strange to them at first, but we discuss the human condition and what we see happening in the rats and the possibilities that are there to help people dealing with addiction. I think they find what we do quite rewarding and see its value to the people struggling with addiction.”

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