There is a place at the University of Chicago where you can get and openly take methamphetamine. Or Ecstasy. Or alcohol.
Or a placebo.
Because the place is a research lab, the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, under the direction of psychiatry professor Harriet de Wit, which for decades has conducted some of the most important drug research nationwide.
She studies mind-altering drugs, including those that can be abused or lead to addiction. And she is one of only about 40 scientists in the U.S. who use human volunteers.
"We're interested in how the drugs make people feel," de Wit said. "The overall goal (is) to look at how people differ in their responses to drugs, (which) might predict what kinds of people might be at risk for abusing them."
Any notion that this research is conducted amid a party atmosphere is quickly dispelled by the lab's setting, a warren of nondescript rooms in the university hospital's West Campus. Research assistants hunch over computers, and the hallways are decorated with large posters reading, "Subjective, physiological and behavioural effects of a caffeine product after sleep restriction."
There are no indications that potentially illicit drugs are being tested, though that was not the case about 10 years ago, when de Wit was studying marijuana in smoked form. The distinctive smell wafted into the hallways, prompting a visit from security guards.
De Wit's work is widely respected and firmly within the scientific mainstream.
Most of it is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whose acting deputy director, David Shurtleff, calls de Wit "one of the leading experts in (looking) at the effects of drugs in humans."
De Wit, 62, is the picture of academic propriety. An easygoing, walk-to-work Hyde Parker, she loves travel and theater. She keeps photos from a trip to Africa on her office wall and the drugs for her studies in a safe topped by a houseplant.
Still, her research has its peculiarities. She once administered a certain drug to subjects in the form of brownies. And a recruitment posting on Craigslist for a current study inquires, "Have you used club drugs (like XTC, Special K, speed)?"
Prospective study participants sometimes have the wrong idea about taking drugs for science.
"They say, 'Where do you sign up?'" said Margaret Wardle, 31, a post-doctoral fellow running a study of methamphetamine. "Then they find out they're going to have to stay here five hours and come back three times."
And they won't be doing anything exciting. The rooms where they are given the drugs are furnished like living rooms, with magazines, books and a TV set up to show movies.
When Amy Lee, a 20-year-old student at Wheaton College, showed up on a recent weekday morning for her first stint as a volunteer, she was given an unidentified syrup to swallow, then settled in to spend the session periodically looking at pictures and answering questions about them on a computer.
Most research on illegal drugs is done on animals, which poses fewer legal and ethical challenges. But confirming those results in people is crucial, Shurtleff said.
"We need to know a lot more about how these drugs work in the human body" in order to develop better medicines and treatments for drug addiction and abuse, Shurtleff said.
Primarily, de Wit is addressing the central question of drug abuse research: Why do some people become addicted to drugs when most people who try them do not?
Over her 30 years at the lab, she has looked at variables including environment, neurobiology, hormonal cycles and genetics to see why and under what circumstances subjects particularly enjoy drugs.
Among her findings, de Wit has shown that people react to alcohol by feeling stimulated or by getting sleepy, and that those in the first group also feel strong stimulant effects from amphetamines. That could mean the two drugs work in similar ways.
Another study found that volunteers who took MDMA (the acronym for 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as Ecstasy) reacted more strongly to pictures of happy faces, while their reactions to pictures of angry faces were muted.
That could make the drug useful in psychotherapy; people who don't sense negative responses could be emboldened to speak more freely with a therapist, De Wit said.
In another experiment, de Wit recently showed that the longer cigarette smokers abstain from smoking, the more tempted they are to return to it when they see reminders such as lighted cigarettes.
Most addiction treatment programs assume the opposite, that the longer addicts abstain, the less vulnerable they are to relapse.
"This could be useful in treatment," de Wit said. "Clinicians should know this."
Using human subjects in these studies poses complex legal and ethical challenges. Any study that administers an abused drug to human volunteers exposes them to some risks, de Wit wrote in a textbook to be published next year, but the risks can be minimized.
Her studies must pass three levels of approval: the University of Chicago's institutional review board, the National Institutes of Health review board and the national advisory council of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Studies of
MDMA must be approved by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
"Our primary concern is the safety of the volunteers," de Wit said. "We think about that very carefully. It influences the doses of drugs we administer, the route of administration and very much the screening of volunteers."
Study subjects are paid about $10 an hour, typically earning $200 or $250. They must be 18 to 35 (over 21 for alcohol studies) and are chosen carefully, beginning with thorough screenings of their physical and mental health.
"We exclude anyone who has a history of drug abuse," de Wit said. "Our reasoning is they might be at risk for relapse."
The drugs are not inherently dangerous, de Wit said. Methamphetamine is chemically related to crystal meth, the highly addictive, illegal, smoked form of methamphetamine. But in pharmaceutical form and when given by mouth in a capsule, it is far more similar to widely prescribed Ritalin, she said.
For studies of Ecstasy, however, the lab will accept only volunteers who have already tried it (thus, the Craigslist posting).
"We don't want to expose people to a drug for the first time and for them to have a bad reaction," de Wit said.
The lab generally prefers subjects with some experience with recreational drugs, which includes cigarettes and caffeine. Volunteers are supposed to be ordinary people, and abstainers from everything right down to coffee are atypical, she said.
Still, the volunteers at the lab on a recent morning seemed markedly wholesome.
Asked during her initial interview when she had last had any alcohol, Amy Lee answered, "Never."
And 20-year-old Dana Walker, who was getting her debriefing after her final session, was taken to and from the lab by her mom.
Though she had gotten only 30 minutes of sleep the night after one of her sessions (it turns out she had been given methamphetamine), she had liked the feeling of the drug
"I felt extra happy," she told the graduate student overseeing the experiment. "I was cheerful and peppy."
The lab does not do long-term follow-ups of volunteers, said Emma Childs, a junior faculty member of the lab, but studies have shown that experiments like these do not make subjects more likely to use illicit drugs.
While de Wit is well aware of the pain of drug addiction, she is not put off by moderate recreational drug use. She is partial to a nightly glass of chardonnay or Scotch.
And like many a baby boomer, she has smoked marijuana, which she sees as "a relatively benign mind-altering drug," though one society should keep under control.
Though her work on drugs is rigorously scientific, her thoughts can turn philosophical.
"Our perceptions are narrow; we only see certain things," she said before she left Chicago for a vacation in Patagonia. A drug can be a "little like travel. It opens up new ways of seeing."
Chicago Tribune 7th Aug 2011
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