Can Ants Become Addicted To Drugs?

By Keri Blakinger 08/28/17

A preliminary study used morphine to determine the possibility of addiction with the insects. 

an ant posing in nature

Ants will steal crumbs from your picnic, but if given half the chance they may just snatch some heroin from your stash, too. At least that’s according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Biology that showed that the little buggers can get addicted to opioids just like humans—a discovery that could change the way scientists study addiction.

“Now that we’ve proven we can addict ants and that the neurochemical pathways are similar to mammals, what’s most exciting to me is the next step,” Marc Seid, a neuroscientist at the University of Scranton and the study’s lead author told Smithsonian magazine. “We can addict individual [ants] and see how that affects the ants’ social network, which is somewhat like humans'.”

For their ant-sized addiction study, researchers used a “sucrose-fading procedure” where they gave two groups of ants sugar water, decreasing the sweetness over time. But one of those bowls also had morphine, so by the fifth day one group of ants was facing a water bowl and the other an opioid-filled offering. When sugar bowls were reintroduced, the addict ants still chose the morphine option over sugar 65% of the time. 

“As anyone who’s ever had ants in their kitchen knows, ants really like sugar,” Seid said. “But we showed that [addicted ants] foraged much more on morphine than on their natural reward, sugar.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have used invertebrates in drug studies. Past research has shown that cocaine can impact bees’ responses to flowers, and amphetamine can affect crayfish motion. Fruit flies have shown addiction to alcohol, but only when it was coupled with sugar. The new study showed that ants could be induced to consume drugs without any added sugar for motivation.

Despite the bugs’ apparent drug-seeking behavior, some researchers are skeptical that ants can really become addicts. Wulfila Gronenberg, a University of Arizona neuroscientist, said the study only showed that morphine interacts with bugs’ dopamine systems the same way it does in humans—but it fails to show true drug dependence complete with tolerance, withdrawal and behavioral changes. 

“I find the paper interesting,” he said. “But this is a very preliminary study.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.