Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have heard of the opioid epidemic that has swept the entirety of the United States. Everyday, more and more Americans are getting hooked on pain killing medications. These medications, when taken regularly over a period of time, can cause users to become dependent on the drugs. The saddest aspect of the epidemic is the tremendous loss of human life that has resulted. Everyday, seventy-eight people die from opioid overdose in the US. Understandably, this epidemic has prompted researchers to conduct studies into addiction. One recent study has used ants as a model for understanding addiction. This study is the first in history to demonstrate that a social insect can fall victim to a drug dependency.


You may already know that the human brain contains neural networks and neurotransmitters that are much older than humans themselves. This is why scientists often use rats and our primate ancestors as models for understanding human brain functioning. As it happens, insects also possess many of the same neurotransmitters that humans possess, which, under some circumstances, makes them suitable as models for understanding how the human brain works. According to Marc Seid, a neuroscientist at the University of Scranton and the study’s senior author, researchers are now able to make ants addicted to opioid drugs in order to study their social behavior while addicted. The study had ants using morphine, which is a common opioid drug.


When it comes to conducting studies on how people addicted to drugs function socially, using animals as models is the only choice, as it is obviously unethical for researchers to make healthy humans drug addicts. For the most recent study on opioids, using rats as models for humans was considered, but rats are socially different from humans. However, ants are not. This makes social insects such as ants, termites and bees ideal as stand ins for studying human when studying social behavior. The study showed that ants will eventually prefer morphine over sugar, and dopamine levels are especially high in morphine-addicted ants. However, these findings were not necessarily surprising, and since this is the earliest study of its kind, more research is necessary before scientists can better understand the social behavior of human drug addicts by using ants as models.


Do you believe that ants will neglect their duties to the colony after becoming addicted to morphine?