Rat Park: Addiction is a situation, not a disease

Thousands of studies have been done claiming that addiction is a disease, mostly by putting rats in a cage with some drugs and noting that they’ll repeatedly take the drugs, even if it means starving to death.

Bruce Alexander was skeptical about these results. He noticed that the rats in the experiments were stuffed alone in a boring cage with little else to do. “If I was strapped down alone in a cage,” he thought, “I’d probably want to get high too.”

So he built a rat park — a large, intricate, brightly-painted and heavily-padded structure to make the rats actually happy. He put half the rats in the normal cages and half in the park and gave both equal access to drugs.

The rats in the cage got addicted, while the rats in the park stayed away.

Then, even more strikingly, he took rats who’d had 57 days to get addicted to the drugs and took half of them out of the cages and put them in the park. The rats, even though they’d been addicted in the cage, suddenly stayed away from the drugs. They even voluntarily detoxed — trembling and shaking, but still staying off the drugs.

The top-shelf journals like Science and Nature rejected the study. It did end up getting published in a peer reviewed journal (Pharamacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, impact factor 1.5), but received little public attention. His university pulled the funding for the project.

23 comments

  1. Ajju Apr 24

    Fascinating. Have no further studies been conducted on this? /Goes off to investigate

  2. Henry Steinberger, Ph.D. (SMART Recovery) Dec 11

    Thank you for giving this study some coverage. I first heard of it in a book by Stanton Peele and more recently in The Walrus (Mon. Dec. 3, 2007) but as noted, never in the most popular science journals nor in the public media where it would get notice (e.g. The NY Times Sunday Magazine). We on the Board of Directors of SMART Recovery have been battling out whether the organization should take a firm stand against the “disease model” or to gain greater acceptance by muzzling our opinions. Our program is science-based and secular, and we have always supported a bio-psycho-social model (but most of our volunteer facilitators and attendees know that we do not insist on any sort of “disease” and that is what we usually say when introducing our meetings). I hope that others will be attracted to SMART Recovery and that the Rat Park study will get the attention it deserves. Our program deals mainly with Motivation, Coping with Urges, Managing Beliefs and Getting a life with a balance of short and long term Satisfactions. I think that last point is very much in keeping with Rat Park. A life with a mix of SATISFACTIONS is the best path away from addictions (rather than a magic pill or faith in a deity who will take away the so-called “character defects” found in the moral model masquarading as a medical model).

  3. Anthony Manzo Feb 16

    This study is disruptive and pivotal in every way. Has been any replication? LiteracyMan

  4. Michael M. Koch May 16

    I too found the “Rat Park” to be a significant eye-opener. It occurs to me that in treating “drug addicts” in recovery, the stereotypical model is to remove them from society and place them in a hospital setting, or worse yet imprison them. (Not dissimilar to a proverbial rat in a cage.) Ironic and tragic. But, to be fair, there would seem to be just a grain of truth to the “addiction as disease” paradigm. I elaborate thus: Stress can lead to drug-seeking behavior which can ultimately, of course, lead to addiction. The addiction itself is, understandably, quite stressful, and the cycle continues. Of course, this cycle could be broken by something of the “Rat Park” model. The question might be what, exactly, would an addict require in the way of a “Rat Park” so as to regain the will to reclaim his or her identity as a productive Human Being. (*Imminent bad pun warning in 5… 4…) In the meantime, I shall research the “Rat Pack” instead.

  5. Croft Woodruff Nov 4

    There has been no replication of Dr. Alexander’s study because it will reinforce the original study and blow the psychiatric profession and the pharmaceutical industry totally out of business. No one will put up the money for another study because those who stand to loose know what the results will be.

    Drug abuse is a symptom of the structure of our society. People who benefit from perpetuating the status quo are the problem. Every institution is part of the problem and profits accordingly.

    Environment, like the soil, is everything.

    “Society has adopted a definition of sanity which is totally insane.” Alan Watts

  6. speculator Apr 4

    Do you think though that rats might not be exposed to the kind of trauma that underlies much human addiction?

  7. Adi Jaffe Sep 2

    I like the Rat Park experiment because it challenges our thinking about addiction. Still, it has little to no connection to reality JUST LIKE the experiments it tries to disprove. Who among us lives in a utopia in which there are no costs, no stressors, free access to food and sex and no predators (in the case of the rats). Also, it’s important to note that the large-colony rats still took drugs, just at a lower concentration. Their dose-response curve was likely shifted to the left. I think that any theory of addiction has to combine environmental and biological factors, but ignoring either comes at the cost Dr. Alexander has had to face: No one will take you seriously if you fail to consider the limitations of your work. I’ve communicated with Dr. Alexander myself and he, to this day, will not accept that there are also biological factors important in addiction. This even though there are endless studies showing that even for rats stuck in cages, some will administer drugs readily while others will stay away (I’ve seen this in studies I’ve conducted). The reason his funding got pulled is because he wasn’t willing to look at his theory in the rigorous manner required. Did the rats in the large-colony simply have an aversion to bitter taste? Did their increased interaction with colony mates reduce the amount of time they fed? Which aspects of the large colony were most important in causing a lower rate of drug administration, the colors? the Social interaction? The availability of sex? This study left many questions unanswered, but hopefully, someone will take the time to answer them.

  8. Aussie Sep 3

    Vertebrates including humans and rats have a backbone with a peripheral nervous system attached to the brain. We have the exact same brain regions. So we must have the same motivations? “If I was strapped down alone in a cage…I’d probably want to get high too.” Of course you would! You’re a human being who has experience with emotions like excitement, love and emotional pain. A rat isn’t even self-aware. If you have experienced a fullness of life that only a human can understand and were then put in a prison, getting high would sound great. Why would you try and compare human addiction, which is so highly enveloped by emotion…with a rat who can only understand the euphoria of it? I work with addicts and am in recovery myself. The addiction we deal with goes far beyond a physical need. To truly understand this, you can’t look at it with such a shallow view.

  9. Namey Jun 22

    I can has replication?! But where are drug buttons?

  10. T R Reeves, MD, ABAM Jun 23

    There are volumes of data showing definite physical changes in brains of addicts with resulting physiologic consequences. Ever hear of PET scans or functional MRI? If a liver or heart or pancreas have physical changes with resulting physiologic consequences, it is called a “disease” manifest as hepatitis or a-fib or diabetes or an alteration in the function of that specific organ. When the organ called the brain has physiologic derangements as a result of exposure to alcohol, it is manifest as a behavioural change, a function of that organ. So this is not a disease? Fewer receptors for dopamine in the nucleus accumbens along with increased dendritic branching in these neurons is not a disease process? Relapse rates, defined as loss of control of a disease are nearly identical in alcoholism, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. Just a coincidence i suppose. The degree of intellectual denial by some groups is astounding to me. Selective exclusion of facts reported as truth sells snake oil.

  11. Hang Jun 23

    The only reason I would accept the study to be rejected is if the science was bad. If the science is bad I have not the least bit sympathy for the people doing it. We have junk enough in our lives, we don’t need more of it.

    However, if this could be faithfully reproduced and it would demonstrate that given a choice and a good life, rats won’t voluntarily take drugs even though they can get as much of them as they’d like, that may be a strong indicator for why people choose to take drugs [outside of a medical/religious context]. Somehow I have the feeling that not everybody thinks having happy people making their own choices is a desirable outcome.

  12. Jared Jun 23

    A lot of students in college or soldiers in Viet Nam have used drugs at very high levels only to return to stop or use normal levels when out of that situation. It is the people who continue to use in ways that interfere with their life once in a more normal life situation that benefit from help. What I take from this is not that situation is the only cause of addiction but that studies on addiction should be using the rats who continue to use the drugs even after they have been given access to the rat park.

  13. John Jun 23

    Lauren Slater has a chapter devoted to the Rat Park experiment in her book Opening Skinner’s Box.

  14. Adam Jun 23

    Mainstream therapy has yet to grasp the sociological dimension of ‘dis-ease’… even in addiction – like most (if not all) problems of our world – you find the absence of thorough bio-psycho-social explanations. Folks haven’t learned how each dimension is ‘true’, that an ‘integral’ approach is our best way to grasp and treat addiction. Of course, I don’t know anything I’m just an “addict” not a “professional”.

  15. Heroin Addict Jun 24

    If I’m getting laid by a girl that doesnt use, feel loved, all that stuff, i stay off it, and like a rat i go back the second my heart gets broken or whatever. I don’t know how to make myself better.

  16. Katie Jun 24

    Dr. Reeves:

    Maybe this argument is semantic, and hinges on what various parties would mean by “disease” or “not a disease.” This might call for a definition of the word “disease,” which would probably turn out to be harder to do coherently than it seems on first blush. I don’t see anyone here disputing that exposure to drugs changes a person’s physiology, or that taking drugs can make you sick.

    But one consequence of thinking of something as a disease, right or wrong, fair or unfair, is that people tend to think of it as located only in the body, instead of in the interaction between body, including brain, mind, and situation. It is probably true of most, if not all, diseases that they could fruitfully be conceived of as an interaction among these three elements. Stress, placebo, social support, SES, etc., are all things that affect disease processes. It would be nice to retain the destigmatization we hope we’ve achieved with disease models of mental illness (although there is perhaps some reason to doubt how successful that’s been), but acknowledge and study the ways that social and psychological processes that affect it (as indeed, many people do). Addiction is a psychological phenomenon and it would be a little crazy to expect it to be unaffected by drastic changes in environment, though voluntary detoxification by the rats is indeed a striking result.

  17. David Dec 10

    IMHO drug abuse (as opposed to sensible use, for whatever reason) is more a symptom of mental disparity than a cause. The diving into excess (at least from my past personal experience) results from an inability to deal with a need/lack/problem, with the consequent desire to escape. Some people are free to use that particular escape and some are trapped into even more psychologically destructive alternatives like alcohol.. But no matter which particular symptom shows itself it’s the cause that needs to be cured before the problem will stop rearing its head.

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