Hamsters ‘beef up’ steroid research

By Bradley Rosenberg

The human race has often fantasized of rodents far superior to other rodents. Speedy Gonzalez was faster than the quickest of rats. Mighty Mouse was stronger than the most potent of mice. Now Northeastern’s own Richard Melloni, an assistant professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience, has been able to make hamsters more aggressive than the average hamster.

The cause? Steroid exposure.

With professor Melloni’s research, mankind is one step closer towards the dream of creating the super rodent.

This occurrence is not the focus of Melloni’s work, however, but rather a mere side-effect. The professor’s real concern is the linking of drug use, specifically steroids, to the development of aggression in adolescents.

“We’re trying to understand how drugs of abuse predispose one to violence,” Melloni said. “If we [can] better understand the circuit that controls aggression and how they can change [from the drugs], then we can better develop rational pharmacological therapies for those who are violent.”

Melloni has been working toward this understanding with the use of several adolescent male Syrian hamsters. The hamsters are used because of their natural tendency to defend their territory and their inclination towards not harming other animals.

“Hamsters like to fight,” Melloni said, “but once one establishes dominance, they stop attacking.”

The Northeastern professor’s research, funded by the National Institute of drug abuse, began in 1996. Since that time, the researcher and his two graduate student assistants, Jill Grimes and Lesley Ricci, have made much progress in the study of anabolic steroid use’s relation to adolescent aggression.

“We are one of the only labs in the country looking at pubertal drug abuse and aggression,” he said. “[Because of our research], we’ll be able to suppress behaviors. You don’t [have to] sedate somebody, you [just have to] give them a magic bullet for their aggression.”

The key to this “magic bullet” has caused the hamsters to become very consistent in their patterns and they became adaptable to the changes of the experiment.

In the actual experimentation the hamsters are given one injection of anabolic steroids every day for thirty days. After this period, they are studied. The results of this studying have shown that steroid exposure changes a hamster’s aggression. This is done first by making more Vasopressin, the chemical in the brain that stimulates aggression. The other causes a decrease in the making of Serotonin, the chemical in the brain that inhibits aggression.

Melloni said this is the emotional equivalent to “stepping one foot on the gas and taking one foot off the brake.” It is not known yet whether this condition is permanent. It is certain that there are “definite changes in the animals we studied,” said graduate student assistant Grimes.

Melloni and his assistants have not had any trouble with animal rights activists and he does not expect any.

“Our hamsters live charmed lives,” he said. “They have food and water, they’re warm, they have no predators. [The only catch is that], every once in a while, we ask them to do what they’d do anyway – defend their territory. The worst they receive is a shot.”

The experiment could have looked very different if alternate rodents were selected.

“It would be very easy to use rats and rodents that kill each other,” he said. “We don’t do that.”

Melloni’s research has proven that steroid use can dramatically alter an adolescent’s behavior, making them violent and argumentative even long after abuse ends.

One out of ten adolescent men admit to using anabolic steroids as Melloni contends, steroid abuse becomes a difficult issue with a great amount of concern for many people.