What is the Rat Park Experiment? | ViewPoint Rehabilitation Center

What is the Rat Park Experiment?

what is the rat park addiction experiment

01 Feb What is the Rat Park Experiment?

The Rat Park Experiment

“Drugs don’t cause addiction… Our problems are deeper than drugs, and we’ve used drugs as a smokescreen.”[1] Bruce Alexander

Bruce Alexander is a whistle-blower of sorts among the scientific community. The former Professor Emeritus at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University in Canada was the first to debunk the model of addiction that presupposes the drug itself was “irresistibly addicting”[2], and in so doing, paved the way for a more humanistic and holistic treatment of addiction.

His landmark 1978 study, the ‘Rat Park Experiment’, showed that drug addiction among rats isolated from other rats and deprived of stimulation was not exclusively caused by the morphine they ingested. Remarkably, those same rats, when housed under conditions sympathetic to their social nature, chose to endure the physiological effects of withdrawal rather than continue to consume drugs.

It is a challenging task to extrapolate from those findings and apply them to humans, yet 39 years later Alexander was clear that addiction could not be separated from the fragmentation and alienation of modern culture, where cocaine addiction, among others, is an alarming phenomenon. “Our social system is uninhabitable to many,” he told an audience at Neumann University in Philadelphia in 2017.[3]

Solitary confinement

The results of his revolutionary study sat gathering dust for almost three decades before Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté retrieved them from the archives of addiction studies in his 2008 book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It may seem more obvious now, but to the earlier scientific community, the idea that a person’s psychology and environment may offer causal pathways to addiction was radical.

The Rat Park Experiment undercut scores of rat research experiments from the 1960s that housed rats in tiny, cramped “Skinner boxes” that deprived them of social contact and offered a hit of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine and other drugs through pressing a lever. They were tethered to the roof of the cage with tubing that allowed the drugs to be intravenously injected through their jugular veins. Cocaine addiction and addiction to other drugs followed.

It was effectively a cruel form of solitary confinement for these particularly social, industrious creatures. The rats would consume large amounts of the drugs under these circumstances, giving rise to the conclusion that the highly addictive nature of drugs alone was responsible for addiction.

Rat Park

Unsatisfied with that conclusion, Bruce Alexander and his colleagues set up a new experiment in rat research to find out if rats housed under different conditions would have the same propensity to consume liquids spiked with morphine. Two settings were created: one where rats again were isolated in small cages under similar conditions; and a second environment more sympathetic to rats, later nicked-named Rat Park.

At Rat Park, between 16 and 20 rats of both sexes were housed in a large plywood box filled with platforms, tin cans, running wheels, balls and a floor covered with wood chips. The results were stunning. Given a choice between water and a morphine solution, the ‘social rats’ consistently chose the water. In one of the experiments, the caged rats consumed about 19 times the amount of the morphine solution compared to the social rats.

In a further twist to the experiment, the liquid intake of social rats was then limited to the morphine solution alone. However, when later given the option of plain water again, they resisted the morphine solution despite showing signs of withdrawal. Even caged rats that had been fed the morphine solution for almost 60 days chose to endure withdrawal when rehoused at Rat Park.

Implications

Bruce Alexander later attempted to explain the implications of his rat research for humans addicted to drugs and the profound impact of social isolation. “They use their addictions as a way of coping with their dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life,” he writes. “Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible!”[4]

Although research into the myriad pathways to addiction is ongoing, including genetic predisposition and early-life trauma, the Rat Park Experiment broke new ground by pointing the way towards a more holistic understanding of addiction. Such an understanding can break the cycle of stigmatization of addiction as something that afflicts the morally weak. Successful treatment must take into account the full breadth of being human – including its mental, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual dimensions – in a competitive, individualistic modern world.

[1] “Bruce Alexander Turns Addiction upside Down”, https://www.neumann.edu/about/news/news16-17/brucealexander.asp

[2] Addiction: The View from Rat Park, Bruce Alexander, http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park

[3] “Bruce Alexander Turns Addiction upside Down”, https://www.neumann.edu/about/news/news16-17/brucealexander.asp

[4] Addiction: The View from Rat Park, Bruce Alexander, http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park

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