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"These studies have been done with other drugs primarily alcohol and cocaine, but this has not been done with methamphetamine until now."
Sydney Houlton, MSU biology graduate and student researcher

MSU Profiles

Biology students search for answers to meth addiction in genetics research

MINOT, N.D. - Methamphetamine use continues to devastate communities and the lives of individuals across the nation leaving many scrambling for solutions to the problem. Biology students at Minot State hope to contribute to those solutions by conducting in-depth research to find a genetic link that explains why some people become severely addicted to the drug.

These efforts come at a time when North Dakota has seen a rise in meth addiction, and meth-related crime. According to a 2017 article in the Bismarck Tribune, methamphetamine remains the most commonly used hard drug in the region, and meth incidents have risen each year since 2012.

Recognizing the scourge of meth addiction, Minot State biology professor Zeni Shabani and a group of science students have turned to inbred mice for answers.

"We're working with these very special mice that are selectively bred for vulnerability to meth use," Shabani said. "The idea is to try to map out the genetic risks in the 23 chromosomes you have in humans."

Minot State is working in association with Oregon Health and Science University on this study. Oregon Health and Science University carries out the breeding schemes of the mice, while Minot State researchers focus on the behavioral pharmacological component of the study.

Student lab assistant, and Minot State graduate, Sydney Houlton has been working on the research for four years.

"These studies have been done with other drugs primarily alcohol and cocaine, but this has not been done with methamphetamine until now," Houlton said.

Houlton, who will be attending the graduate neuroscience program at the University of Iowa in fall 2018, and fellow lab assistant Bikalpa Ghimire, a senior double major in biology and mathematics, work under the direction of Shabani. Much of their work involves administering a two-bottle choice, a bottle of water and a bottle of methamphetamine, to mice and then observing and documenting their behavior.

The aim of the research is to locate a gene or genes that cause methamphetamine addiction. So far research has pinpointed a region of genes in Chromosome 10 that explain certain addictive behavioral traits.

"The interesting thing with methamphetamine is we can see more than a 50 percent effect from genes," Ghimire said, "with other drugs it's closer to 10-15 percent."

The scope of the methamphetamine research reaches beyond the walls of the lab in the Cyril Moore Science building. Shabani and his students have presented their research at many conferences including the Society for Neuroscience, INBRE, and most recently at the International Behavioral and Neural Genetics Society in Rochester, Minn.

According to Shabani, who began working on methamphetamine research when he was a post doctorate student, the ultimate goal is to develop drugs in the future that can prevent relapse for people struggling with addiction.