Rats on cocaine on campus

Washington State University Vancouver participates in a wide variety of research projects throughout the year. Some of that research conducted at WSU Vancouver stems from projects started at other WSU branches. Barbara Sorg, Ph.D., from the department of integrative physiology and neuroscience, is working on just such a project. The project evolved out of research projects being conducted at WSU on learning and memory studies. Sorg works with a large group of students including one graduate student, Megan Slaker, postdoctoral fellow Jordan Blacktop, Research Associate Ryan Todd, and four undergraduate researchers. They are working to find ways of reducing the impact of certain memory triggers in the brain, to find the answer to “how do we diminish drug memories to reduce relapse rates?” The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sponsors this research project, which has been ongoing for several years and now features collaboration with OHSU. Sorg says she plans to continue this project for as long as the funding lasts, or her retirement, whichever comes first.

Sorg said that many addicts might have a relapse after being exposed to certain triggers. These may include the people they used to do drugs with, or reminders of their drug use, such as a syringe or their drug of choice; even a rise in their heart rate might trigger a memory of their high She said these triggers usually include an emotional attachment. Sorg’s research attempts to remove that emotional component, with the assistance of rats.

The rats are provided with several stimuli in order to receive their cocaine. They might press a lever, go to a particular room or something else which provides a motor feedback that the researchers can see. The rats display a drug memory by returning to the same room or pressing on the lever again, regardless of whether or not there are any drugs actually present. In order to remove these drug memories, a drug that acts as an amnesia agent is administered during the recollection of the memory, such as when the rat sees the lever they used to dispense drugs. Since memories, including drug memories, are malleable, this disrupts the neurological pathways that allow the brain to strengthen the memory. Sorg compared this process to a patient who watches a stream of images, and receives a harmless but unpleasant shock when a certain image pops up. The patient would eventually learn to react to that image in a similar manner. Sorg said that the amnesia agent would disrupt those signals until the patient, who still remembers the shock, no longer reacts negatively to the image. Sorg said that this research is capable of being extended beyond drug relapse into the realm of other neurological disorders and trauma such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The current research has demonstrated that one region in the frontal cortex is responsible for the drug memories, and have been digging more into that using the best model for addiction. The work conducted at WSU, which Sorg was initially involved with, focuses on sleep patterns and has found that many types of addicts can have severe sleep problems. The effort there is to attempt to find a way to normalize the sleep patterns, which may aid in the recovery process. This project led Sorg to begin her current work.

Sorg’s ongoing work involves a large amount of detail, primarily in memory manipulation. One of the undergraduate students working with Todd has begun working with a drug already approved for the purpose of disrupting memories. The future work would involve translational research, which is research that aims to turn science into application for the enhancement of human health. Sorg will also be beginning human trials, possibly working in conjunction with other institutions such as Baylor College of Medicine. Sorg’s research has also found that rats will project an ultrasonic “chirping” noise when they are happy. This information can be used as a more sensitive measure of the rat’s memories rather than relying on a physical action, such as pressing a lever.

Sorg says that she does not currently have any need for research volunteers, but there is a possibility of positions becoming available in the summer. There may also be paid research positions available, which anyone studying in the drug abuse field may apply for through the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Program (ADARP). ADARP is funded through alcohol license fees for the purpose of drug and alcohol research. Students interested in more information can find it at www.public.wsu.edu/~adap/

One question that Sorg said she hears frequently is “How do you get the cocaine?” She said that it comes from NIDA and requires a DEA license. In order to have it dispensed, Sorg must justify the request and have multiple security measures in effect, such as logs and locks. Even then, only a small amount is received.

Students interested in further information about this project, or any of Sorg’s research, can find more information on PubMed by searching for “memory reconsolidation” or they can email Sorg directly at sorg@vetmed.wsu.edu

Barbara Sorg, Ph.D.


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