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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
March 29, 2010



Experiments in alcohol and the tale of Rat Park

When it comes to using small mammals for alcohol experiments, Iím a sceptic. Not because I fear for the small mammals but because it seems to me that the effects of drink on a human are very much socially constructed, and you canít properly understand that kind of thing by simply studying the impact of a chemical on an organism.

Tossing those doubts to one side, however, I was intrigued to find out about (with the help, once again, of Ian Wardle a small mammal experiment with a difference carried out in the late 1970s.

Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, who Iíve mentioned before,  had the theory that it wasnít the drug that caused addiction but something about the way people Ė and small mammals - lived. All those experiments that got rats addicted to various drugs may be flawed because the rats were kept in cages and were, perhaps, distressed by their unnatural, oppressive conditions and took to drugs as an escape.

So he devised an experiment thatís  become known as the Rat Park study.

He built a colony for the rats 200 times bigger than the standard lab rat cage, gave them plenty of nice things to eat, wheels and balls to play with and the chance to have lots of sex.

They were also given the choice of drinking plain water or sweetened morphine. And, in contrast to sad rats in cages, the happy rats chose water every time.

The results contradicted orthodox views on the cause of addiction and threw into question much lucrative research work Ė thatís still going on. The big science journals turned down Alexander et alís paper, and after a few years funding was withdrawn and Rat Park had to close.

Since then Alexander has developed his theory around the notion that addiction is caused not by the drug or the drink but by social dislocation, and heís written a book on it called the Globalisation of Addiction.

Of course, it may be that this theory only applies to rats, which might be for the best. After all, if the solution to alcohol and drug misuse is universal human happiness weíd be in a proper pickle.

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