Frustration can trigger drug abuse, study on rats suggests

GALVESTON, Texas — Substance use disorders may be triggered by frustration, according to recent research. This is the first study focusing on frustration as a factor for drug use and addiction, rather than habit, craving, or impulsivity. 

Previous research suggests that low tolerance for frustration is indicative of persons struggling with substance use disorders. Additionally, a correlation between relapse and frustration has been seen in those with drug addictions.

“An example of frustration behavior is when someone can’t get the channel on the TV to change or when an elevator takes too long to arrive. People will often respond to both situations by pressing the button repeatedly or holding the button longer with repeated attempts. This typical human response to frustration is the same in rats,” says Dr. Thomas A. Green, of UTMB’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, in a statement

“In our study, rats were trained to press a lever for delivery of either a sucrose pellet or an intravenous infusion of a synthetic opioid. If they didn’t get what they expected, they would press the lever more frequently and for longer periods of time,” he continues. “When a rat presses a lever repeatedly that was supposed to deliver a banana-flavored sucrose pellet, but the pellets never arrive, they hold the levers down longer as the frustration builds.”

Researchers explain that would press a lever for doses of fentanyl, but about 10% would escalate their intake of fentanyl to about double that of the average rate.

“Even as the escalating rats take massive amounts of the drug, their bar presses get longer (in some cases up to 10 minutes long), even though long bar presses do not increase the amount of drug delivered. These susceptible rats, even though they are taking as much fentanyl as their bodies can handle, are frustrated that they are still not getting enough of the drug to satisfy them,” says Tileena Vasquez, a doctoral candidate in UTMB’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the lead author of the paper.

According to Dr. Green, the researchers hope to develop a human clinical trial to better understand the effect of frustration on drug use. 

The study was published in the medical journal Psychopharmacology.

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