Monday, September 23, 2013

Rats and People Make Better Choices (When There are Better Choices to Be Made)

You've heard about the research studies that show that when laboratory rats are allowed to self-administer drugs (meth, opiates, cocaine) by pressing a bar they will press and press and press until they are dead. Those studies, done over and over, have demonstrated the power of addiction. The takeaway has always been something like: "See how bad these drugs are; rats (and people) will kill themselves--and they just can't help it."

It turns out that only part of that is true.

This week I read about Carl Hart, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Columbia and the research he has been doing that demonstrates that those earlier rat studies had a structural limitation. Hart replicated the studies many times but added a variable each time--he added something else to the cage with the rat. Sometimes a sexually available partner, sometimes a sweet treat, sometimes a running wheel. In those cases the rats did not keep returning to the "drug bar" to press and press. They interrupted their own cycle of use. And they did not die.

Right you say, but these are rats. So Dr Hart did further studies with humans--with self-identified crack addicts and he offered them some alternatives. (No, he could not offer sexually available partners) but he offered other activities, social supports and money. Interestingly he offered the cash "reward" on a delayed basis--only paid out after the study. But it was still incentive enough to interrupt the cycle and power of addiction. His biggest take-away from the human studies is that addiction can be interrupted by changing the social environment.

Dr. Hart, speaking of his rat studies, in a recent New York Times article said, "When you enrich their environment and give them access to sweets or let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever."

Now that sentence just makes me grin. Isn't that whet we do in twelve-step fellowship? We get to play with other rats and we change the social environment of recovering addicts.

None of that is lost on Dr. Hart who this week has published a new book called "High Price" about his life and what he is learning in his studies on addiction.

Here is a link to Hart talking about his work and the story of his new book:

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