Opioid use rates and related deaths continue to be a public health crisis; while there are many contributing factors to opioid use disorders, criteria for diagnosis include problems related to social functioning. Previous research indicates that laboratory rats, which are frequently used as animal models of addiction-related behaviors, are capable of prosocial behavior. The following collection of studies were performed to determine the effects of heroin on prosocial behavior in rats, as well as the role of the insula in both self-administration of heroin and prosocial behaviors. All of the experiments were conducted utilizing an established model of prosocial behavior in rats in which a performing rat releases a cagemate from a restrainer. The occurrence of and latency to free the confined rat was recorded. After baseline rescuing behavior was established, rats were allowed to self-administer heroin (0.06 mg/kg/infusion i.v.), and subsequent experimental conditions were imposed.
Experimental conditions, in a series of different studies, included comparing heroin reinforcers with sucrose, chemogenetically modulating the insular cortex (both stimulatory and inhibitory processes) and administering excitotoxic lesions in the insula. There were significant differences in saving behaviors between heroin and sucrose groups demonstrating an opioid induced loss of prosocial behavior. Modulating the insula chemogenetically resulted in some restoration of these opioid related deficits, and insular lesions did not significantly impact prosocial behaviors, however, there were significant differences between rates of heroin intake in lesioned animals versus non-lesioned controls. Taken together, these results demonstrate the deleterious effects of heroin on prosocial behaviors and offer further support for the role of the insula in both addiction and social constructs.