Playpen Rats Making Popular Comeback, Defy the Brain-disease Model of Addiction


Three University of Queensland addictions experts challenge last year’s Nature editorial that claimed there is a scientific “consensus” that addiction is a brain disease. There is better evidence, the authors state, to support a social model of addiction. And parts of their evidence — the 1970s experiments with rats in constructed play-parks in Vancouver — are re-visited in a new book.

The University of Queensland authors review the evidence for the brain-disease model of addiction, and then compare it to the evidence in support of understanding addiction in a social context. One of the studies they discuss is a Canadian one that found that it was difficult to keep lab rats addicted, and nearly impossible to get them addicted in the first place, when they had access to more natural conditions within which to live. “Economic, epidemiological, and social scientific evidence shows that the neurobiology of addiction should not be the over-riding factor when formulating policies toward drug use and addiction,” they conclude.

The same study is discussed in a post by Johann Hari, about his new book Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs. “At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place,” writes Hari. “It was called the Vietnam War.”

(Free registration) The brain disease model of addiction: is it supported by the evidence and has it delivered on its promises? (Hall, Wayne et al. The Lancet Psychiatry. January 2015. DOI:

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think (Huffington Post, January 22, 2015)

See also:

Rat Trap: Why Canada’s drug policy won’t check addiction (The Walrus, December 2007)

Animal farm (Editorial. Nature. February 6, 2014. doi:10.1038/506005a)


  1. There is a wrong-headed view of addiction as merely a brain disease. It comes from the same worldview mistake that sees “mental health disorders” as caused by biochemical imbalances. But it is equally wrong-headed to just see addiction through the lens of a “social” model.

    There is a clear cognitive difference between humans and rats. So while studying how the social life of rats influences drug use can be useful, the cognitive differences between humans and rats adds another factor to consider when interpreting the results of these addiction experts—the cognitive or psychological. Addiction is a bio-psycho-social problem.

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