Anterior insula activation restores prosocial behavior in animal model of opioid addiction


April 8, 2020

Are the social and interpersonal problems associated with opioid addiction reversible?

A new study in animals from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology suggests they are. Previously, the researchers used a model of opioid addiction and empathy to show that animals stopped prosocial behaviors — helping another animal — when heroin was available. The same research group has now shown that activating the anterior insula restored prosocial behaviors. The study will be published in Social Neuroscience and is now available online. ASU grad student holding a vial ASU's Seven Tomek holds a vial used to study the impact of opioids on prosocial behavior in an animal model. She and her colleagues found that activating the anterior insula in an animal model of opioid addiction restored prosocial behavior. Download Full Image

“As a master’s student, I led support groups for opioid addicts, and the biggest problems people wanted help dealing with were social. Our finding in an animal model of opioid addiction that chemogenetic activation of the anterior insula restores prosocial behavior suggests a glimmer of hope that some of the social behavioral deficits in opioid addiction are not permanent,” said Seven Tomek, who just defended her doctoral dissertation at ASU. Tomek is first author on the paper and received training in substance abuse treatment while earning her master’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.  

To measure prosocial behavior, the researchers trained animals to free another animal that was trapped in a clear plastic tube. The animals had access to heroin for two weeks and then were given the choice of consuming heroin or helping another animal. Like before, the animals again chose heroin over helping another. 

To try and restore the prosocial behaviors in the animals, the research team targeted a brain region involved in both prosocial behaviors like helping and addictive behaviors like craving: the anterior insula. 

“We designed our animal study based on work in people showing that damage in the anterior insula area — from a stroke for example — was correlated with easily quitting cigarette smoking,” Tomek said. “This brain area is also important for motivation and emotions in people.”

The insula is nicknamed the “hidden lobe” because it is tucked underneath the brain’s frontal, parietal and temporal lobes. The research team used chemogenetic methods to activate the anterior insula. These methods work like a smart lock, letting scientists selectively activate specific types of neurons in a brain region.

“Once we activated the anterior insula, the animals started rescuing the trapped animals again,” Tomek said.

The research team tested the role of anterior insula activation twice. In the first experiment, the animals who underwent “activation” of the anterior insula helped other animals 67% of the time when heroin was available. The control group only helped other animals 17% of the time. In the second experiment, activation of the anterior insula was again associated with helping other animals 67% of the time. The second control group helped other animals 44% of the time.

“This work demonstrates an important role for the anterior insula in opioid addiction and shows the possibilities of changing a social behavior that has been compromised by drug use,” said Foster Olive, professor of psychology at ASU and senior author on the paper.

Gabriela Stegmann, Jonna Leyrer-Jackson and Jose Piña also contributed to the work. This study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Society of Addiction Psychology, and Arizona State University.

Science writer, Psychology Department

480-965-7598

Working to solve the puzzle that is drug addiction: ASU neuroscientist Foster Olive promoted to full professor


June 8, 2018

Drug addiction is complex, and Arizona State University neuroscientist Foster Olive has spent his career working to unravel why and how the brain becomes addicted to drugs.

The ASU Department of Psychology recently promoted Olive from associate professor to full professor because of his research efforts. Foster Olive, professor of psychology Foster Olive, professor of psychology at ASU. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

A feel-good piece of the drug addiction puzzle

Olive runs the Addiction Neuroscience Lab at ASU. His interest in drug addiction began when he was in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA, he spent some time working in a lab that studied how morphine affected endorphins in the brain, and he was fascinated by how endorphins might contribute to drug addiction.

“Endorphins do not receive as much attention as other neuromodulatory systems that are involved in drug addiction, like dopamine,” Olive said. “But, they play an important role in addiction and recovery.”

Endorphins are chemicals made by the nervous system that block pain and create good feelings. Exercise and laughter cause endorphins to be released, but opiate drugs like heroin also work on the same neuronal systems.

Olive recently received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how alcohol activates the endorphin system in the brain. This particular NIH grant program was motivated by the finding that naltrexone, an endorphin-blocking drug that is well-known for its capability to reverse opiate overdoses, is also effective at treating alcoholism.

To test how alcohol affects the brain’s endorphin system, Olive and his team use special animals who have endorphin neurons that literally light up, or fluoresce, when the neurons become active. The researchers can measure how the endorphin system responds to alcohol. Currently, they are focusing on an area of the brain called the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a “clearing house” in the brain, and neurons in this area are involved in wide-ranging processes like control of body temperature, hunger, thirst sleep and emotions.

“Once we identify a region or circuit in the brain that is affected by alcohol, we can start to figure out how to dampen the effect of alcohol without interfering with other functions,” Olive said.

A social piece of the addiction puzzle

The Addiction Neuroscience Lab also focuses on how social relationships affect drug addiction.

“Opiate addicts are known to isolate themselves, and strong relationships are known to be protective and helpful for recovery,” Olive said. “Social effects are only partially understood in addiction research but are a very important area.”

Olive and his graduate student Seven Tomek recently published a paper in Addiction Biology that examined how the opiate heroin affected prosocial behavior in an animal model. The study looked at what happened when animals were given a choice between sugar pellets and rescuing a trapped animal or between heroin and rescuing the trapped animal. The researchers found that the animals who received sugar pellets kept rescuing the trapped animals. The animals who received heroin completely stopped rescuing. This study could lead to a possible mechanism for dysfunctional social behavior in opiate addicts or to improved treatments for opiate addiction.

West to east, and back again

Olive’s path to Tempe started in California and went through South Carolina. After earning his doctorate at UCLA, Olive completed two postdoctoral fellowships: one at Stanford University and a second at the University of California, San Francisco. He worked for five years at the Medical University of South Carolina before moving back west. Olive joined the ASU Department of Psychology in 2010.

“Foster Olive is an extremely productive researcher of how drugs of abuse create dependence and addiction; his work is theoretically thoughtful and sophisticated, methodologically innovative, and highly influential in the field. Indeed, he is a leading scholar, nationally and internationally,” said Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor of psychology and department chair. “He is also an excellent, dedicated teacher and mentor, and goes far beyond the call with his service to the discipline, the department and university, and the broader community. The Department of Psychology and ASU are significantly stronger because of Professor Olive.”

[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHWXFE4cndY autoplay:0]

Science writer, Psychology Department

480-965-7598