Campus / News / November 13, 2013

Honors Profile: senior studies rats, drugs, pain and pleasure

Senior Tim O’Neil is pursuing an Honors Project in neuroscience and biochemistry. He is looking at addiction and the difference between pain and pleasure by studying the effects of methamphetamine on lab rats.


The Knox Student: What’s your Honors Project about?

Tim O’Neil: I’m doing a bunch of behavioral tests and I’m using methamphetamine for my drug of abuse. So I’m looking at a particular receptor called the signal one receptor, which is really exciting – it’s what I specialize in. So I give a group [of lab rats] meth and then I give a group meth with the receptor blocked and then I do tests to study anxiety, depression, anhedonia, pain and learning and memory; so a wealth of different behaviors, and I tested the day of the initial drug use, and then once the animal has become (addicted?) a week later, and then when they go through withdrawal, I go through withdrawal testing. So I’m looking at what effect withdrawal has on different phases of drug abuse.


TKS: What’s the end goal of the project?

TO: In the end, I want to basically find out what happens from the time you initially take the drug to the time you go through withdrawal. So next term I’m going to be doing biochemical studies of the receptors in the brain to see how the individual receptors are changing in different areas involved in something that’s related to reward, which is the pleasure of the drug, and then a part of the brain that’s responsible for the motivation and the drug seeking behavior, so it basically overpowers your conscious decision to do something when you become habituated to taking the drug, and something related to higher cognition, so it’s ‘should I do this or should I not?’


TKS: Why methamphetamine?

TO: I was originally going to use cocaine, because cocaine is usually the stereotypical drug used for drug studies because methamphetamine can be neurotoxic and degenerate parts of your brain, so I didn’t want to compromise my results. But when the government got shut down, we couldn’t submit our order to get cocaine, so there was an Honors student a few years ago who used methamphetamine, so we had some left over. It’s 100 percent meth. It’d be interesting to use city meth that’s so impure and see, because I’m sure the impurities would have some effects as well because I’m sure people aren’t using 100 percent meth. There are so many different things I have to do, but I only have six months.


TKS: How does your sociology research play into this?

TO: I’m doing a ton of literature review on the sociological aspects of drug addiction, because I know how the societal construct of the addict influences the individual’s seeking of treatment within different phases, because societal pressures can also cause changes in your neurochemistry, so that has something to do with it. So over winter break I might do a social stress study with rats and see if that’s altering it. The treatments we have for drug addiction aren’t good as is. I spent this past summer in Brazil, and they’re incredibly open about everything … depression, anxiety, drug addiction Ñ everyone just talks about it and everyone is in a much healthier state of mind than here where everything’s hushed up, so I’m interested in seeing how that alters an individual who wants to become addicted and cannot seek treatment because it’s too scandalous.


TKS: How do you test sociology on lab rats?

TO: There’s something called social defeat, which is really sad actually. You basically find the one animal that’s smaller and bullied around and you can put it in a cage with more aggressive animals and then you give the weaker one the drug and you see how the others’ behavior is altered when it’s on the drug. We’ll see what happens. No one’s ever done this before.


TKS: How do you feel knowing that you’re pursuing a project that’s never been done?

TO: It’s cool. No one’s really worked with the receptor I’m working with right now. My sophomore year they found out that this was responsible for a lot of the effects of hallucinogens and it turns out it’s responsible for depression and anxiety and all of these things, so I go to look at papers, and there aren’t any. So it’s just going in the dark, which is kind of cool because it’s new.

Kate Mishkin
Kate Mishkin is a senior majoring in English literature and minoring in journalism. She started working for TKS as a freshman and subsequently served as managing editor, co-news editor and co-mosaic editor. Kate is the recipient of four awards from the Illinois College Press Association for news and feature stories and one award from the Associated Collegiate Press. She won the Theodore Hazen Kimble Prize in 2015 and 2014 and the Ida M. Tarbell Prize in Investigate Journalism in 2014. She has interned at FILTER Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WGIL radio and the Virginian-Pilot.

Twitter: @KateMishkin

Tags:  cocaine honors profile meth methamphetamine rats tim o'neil

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