Rats that are socially isolated during a critical period of adolescence are more vulnerable to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol, found researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. Amphetamine addiction is also harder to extinguish in the socially isolated rats.
These effects, which are described this week in the journal Neuron, persist even after the rats are reintroduced into the community of other rats.
“Basically the animals become more manipulatable,” said Hitoshi Morikawa, associate professor of neurobiology in the College of Natural Sciences. “They’re more sensitive to reward, and once conditioned the conditioning takes longer to extinguish. We’ve been able to observe this at both the behavioral and neuronal level.”
Morikawa said the negative effects of social isolation during adolescence have been well documented when it comes to traits such as anxiety, aggression, cognitive rigidity and spatial learning. What wasn’t clear until now is how social isolation affects the specific kind of behavior and brain activity that has to do with addiction.
“Isolated animals have a more aggressive profile,” said Leslie Whitaker, a former doctoral student in Morikawa’s lab and now a researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “They are more anxious. Put them in an open field and they freeze more. We also know that those areas of the brain that are more involved in conscious memory are impaired. But the kind of memory involved in addiction isn’t conscious memory. It’s an unconscious preference for the place in which you got the reward. You keep coming back to it without even knowing why. That kind of memory is enhanced by the isolation.”