Lab Rats and Viet Vets — Two Unconventional Teachers

We have seen how the Rat Park experiments went against established beliefs concerning substance addiction. Prof. Bruce K. Alexander said about his team’s work regarding psychopharmacology:

In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more.

Childhood Obesity News also looked at how a certain population of returning Vietnam veterans disrupted the standard thinking. This 50-year-old topic was resurrected once again, less than a year ago, by journalist Lauren Aguirre. Three major government departments had combined their efforts to stem a threatened tide of heroin addicts.

When soldiers finished a tour of duty in Vietnam, their urine was tested for opioids. A positive test led to being held for a week to detox, which is in itself rather shocking. In civilian life, patients go away for weeks or months to lose a habit.

The Lee Robins study showed that while about 20% of the military personnel had been addicted in Vietnam, after a year back in the States, only 5% had relapsed. Even after three years, the relapse rate was a mere 12%, and the rest had recovered spontaneously without any treatment. (In fact, according to Aguirre, most of the 20 million Americans alive today in long-term recovery did not receive formal treatment.) The writer also remarked,

The unexpected results shed light on the nature of addiction and the position of opioids in an array of other widely misused legal and illegal drugs.

Nor did her team’s analysis show that heroin use was a response to intolerable circumstances, like the stress of war… Veterans who became addicted to heroin began to use it early in their tours of duty in Vietnam, typically before they were in combat.

[M]ore time at the frontline didn’t correlate with a greater likelihood of using heroin — which would be expected if the stress of war was to blame. Robins also found that even though some veterans returned to occasional use once they were back home, they did not become addicted again.

The received wisdom, back in the day, was that addiction is pretty much a life sentence, or a death sentence because the demon drugs were so powerful, no one could escape. But this Viet vet research reached conclusions that were against the prevailing narrative.

Robins was not an opium alarmist and did not perceive heroin as especially dangerous. In her view, it was, in part, a question of personal vulnerability which, whether it is physically based on genetic heritage, or psychologically founded in individual experience, still exists. When people have a twist in their chromosomes or in their minds, either way, their reactions to potentially addictive substances are involved.

In Aguirre’s view, “It’s too bad this research has been largely forgotten because its lessons can be useful today.” How? For one thing, in figuring out what FA is all about. Every angle from which researchers have viewed substance addiction and/or behavioral addiction should be useful in some way to solve the mysteries of food addiction.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,”‘, undated
Source: “Lessons learned — and lost — from a Vietnam-era study of addiction,”, 07/19/21
Image by Paulann Egelhoff/CC BY-ND 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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