Disclaimer: I am a humble neophyte in this field. As such, I welcome any comments or corrections on what I write regarding addiction neuroscience.
Rat brains, marijuana, cocaine, beaches, and cats. That’s my summer in a nutshell.
The first three for research purposes, of course. The latter two are just the perks of my sublet. For the next two months, I will be doing research in neurobiology and addiction at
the University of California – Irvine under the direction of Dr. Stephen Mahler. UCI has a newly founded Irvine Center for Addiction Neuroscience, which just had its first symposium this year.
This campus was only established about 50 years ago. Modern neuroscience as we know it has been around for 40 years. The Mahler lab only welcomed its first employee 1 year ago. As you can imagine, it’s rather exhilarating to take part in a burgeoning and constantly evolving field of research. This is especially true in addiction neuroscience, where federal law essentially dictates what we are able to research. For example, marijuana is currently labeled as a Schedule I drug. According to the DEA’s website, “Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence”. This means that marijuana shares that label with drugs such as heroin and peyote. The DEA currently has plans to determine whether or not it will change the current status of marijuana by July 2016.
Photos of campus in the 70s and 00s from the UCI Digital Archives
So, what does this mean for an addiction neuroscience researcher? It becomes a lengthy, complicated process in order to receive federal approval (and funding) for marijuana research. In its stead, researchers tend to use the synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonist, WIN 55, 212-2. It’s a chemical that while similar to the cannabinoids found in marijuana such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has a completely different chemical makeup. So not only are researchers using lab rats instead of humans subjects, they are sometimes not even able to use authentic cannabis. Let’s break down what substance abuse and addiction look like in your brain. (For a more in-depth description, I recommend starting with this.)
- There reward circuitry in your brain becomes activated whenever you engage in
natural rewards like eating or copulating. It’s a way for your body to ensure your survival and the promulgation of your species.
- Drugs, for example, can mimic the effects of these natural rewards but on a much more robust level.
- Over time and use, even though your body/brain may no longer derive pleasure from the drug itself, the changes in the wiring of the brain cause the need for the drug to remain.
- Certain connections in your brain become stronger than others, reinforcing the craving. So this feeling of extreme need can also be spread to environmental cues, like the smell and look room where you always use.
Addiction remains a highly sensitive, oft politicized subject. While I will eschew discussing the criminalization of drugs and mass incarceration in the US, I will attempt to describe how vital this research can be. At first glance, it can seem rather simple. You might think, “I quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey. I don’t see why it’s so hard to quit drugs with strong willpower and a good rehab center.” Almost two-thirds of young adults (aged 18-24) believe that willpower can be strong enough to stop addiction, according to a 2008 phone survey by SAMHSA. But addiction neuroscience research is slowly changing the way we think about concepts such as free will. There are even fields of study, such as neuroethics, being created to look into these questions and their implications. What we do know is that better understanding the circuitry and circumstances that lead to addiction may help in prevention or improved treatment.
With regards to what my actual day-to-day in the lab looks like, I won’t receive my animal handling certification until Friday, so for now I mostly watch videos of lab rats and record their behavior. My next post will hopefully elucidate the more hands-on, technical aspect of my lab’s work. For now, I am just incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work in an environment where my success is only limited by how much work I am willing to put in.