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Cocaine and the sexual habits of quail, or, why does NIH fund what it does?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A week or so ago (hard to tell with holiday time as it is) Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) released his 2011 “Wastebook”, a list of govt. funded projects that he and his staff consider to be a waste of money. I was of course dismayed to find several science projects make the list, including several funded by the NIH and of importance to public health. In particular, there was this:

23) Rockin’ Robins: Study Looks for Connections Between Cocaine and
Risky Sex Habits of Quail – (KY) $175,587

What common sense suggests, science has confirmed over and over again: namely, that cocaine
use is linked to increased risky sexual behavior. 137 Just to be sure, however, one federal agency
thought it should test the hypothesis on a new subject: Japanese quail. The University of Kentucky received a grant of $181,406 in 2010 from the National Institute of Health to study how cocaine enhances the sex drive of Japanese quail. 138 In 2011, grant funding was extended and an additional $175,587 was provided for the study. 139 The total awarded to the
project will be $356,933.140

The study seeks to verify ―the clinical observations that indicated that cocaine use in humans may increase sexual motivation, thereby increasing the likelihood of the occurrence of high-risk sexual behavior.‖ 141 The researcher conducting the study highlighted how ―Japanese quail are ‗ideal‘ animals to use when studying the link between sex and drugs because the ‗birds readily engage in reproductive behavior in the laboratory.‖142 University of Kentucky‘s website stated that ―quail provide a convenient and interesting alternative to standard laboratory rats and pigeons.‖143 This study is slated to continue through 2015.

Senator Coburn clearly thinks that because we already know that cocaine is bad and increases sexual promiscuity, it is no longer worth studying. I rather strongly disagree with this, and so I’d like to use this post to talk a bit about WHY we still need to study the effects cocaine and addictive drugs in general, why we need to study the effects on sexual behavior in particular, and why quail are a good choice.

(Exhibit A: The Japanese Quail. Cute, eh?)

Why study cocaine? Or any drug, for that matter?

Why, indeed? After all, we know cocaine is bad for you, right? It is addictive and causes increased sexual activity. Then it must be bad for you and that’s all we need to know. End of story, why all the research?

Well, the reality is that KNOWING that something is bad for us doesn’t stop us from USING it. “Just say no” hasn’t worked, and it’s very clear that some humans will continue to use and abuse drugs as long as they can get their hands on them. This produces a lot of pain and suffering, not to mention the waste of millions of dollars of taxpayer money in treatment and ER visits. Drug addiction is a relapsing disorder, one that causes the addict to return to the drug again and again, which results in additional costs, not to mention even more pain and suffering. So it’s important to learn how to treat (and someday, we hope, how to cure) addicts. In order to do this, we need to know HOW drugs of abuse work, what their immediate and long term effects on different behaviors are, and how we might combat some of these effects, or return the behaviors to normal in the absence of the drug. There is already an extensive literature on drugs like cocaine, how it impacts various behaviors and how it acts in, and changes, the brain. But we don’t know everything by any means, and we certainly don’t know enough about mechanism to treat cocaine addiction effectively. Studies to understand how cocaine impacts every behavior are important to our understanding of the drug and how we can combat its effects.

Why Sex?

If we know that cocaine makes you have irresponsible sex, well, that’s it, right?

It’s not the whole story. We know that many drug users engage in risky sexual behavior, but we don’t necessarily know WHY. Do the drugs themselves increase risky sexual behavior? In what way? Which drugs? Are drug users themselves prone to risky sexual behavior regardless? What ASPECTS of sexual behavior are changed?

We know that there is a clinical relationship between drug use and sexual behavior. Dr. Akins, the principal investigator of this study, notes that

Cocaine use, in particular, has been linked to increased sexual activity, a greater number of sex partners and unprotected sex. Cocaine users entering treatment are more likely to have had unprotected sex in exchange for drugs or money or to have had sex with a high risk partner. It has also been associated with a higher than normal incidence of STDs. Cocaine users having multiple partner sex were 1.5 times more likely to be HIV positive compared to cocaine users who were not engaging in sex with more than one partner.

This means that studies on the effects of cocaine and sexual behavior are an important area of research, not just for cocaine abusers, but for the people who sleep with them. It’s important from two public health standpoints, those of drug abuse and those of sexually transmitted diseases. The results of studies like these could be important in how we tackle both treating drug abuse AND how we target safe sex campaigns and STD treatments. If we know where people are more likely to pick up infections, we may be able to catch infections early and slow transmission rate.

And there’s another angle as well. Both drugs like cocaine and behaviors like sex operate via reward circuitry in your brain. Drug use can disrupt this reward circuitry, changing behavior long after drug use is over. As Dr. Akins notes, if cocaine and sex are routed through similar systems, and they are, “cocaine and/or the environment where cocaine was taken might play a role in the reinstatement or reappearance of [high risk] sexual practices”. And using an animal model to study this means that we can look at more than just behavior, we can look at underlying hormonal and neurobiological changes which may underlie that behavior following cocaine exposure (most humans get a little annoyed when you try to look at their brains). Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health are more than just correlations between drug exposure and animal behavior, they also seek to understand MECHANISM. What is CAUSING the difference in behavior following drug exposure, how is the system changed?

So the point of this study is to observe how cocaine use changes sexual behaviors, what the effects are, and how they might be combated by targeting drugs at the reward system, trying to restore balance.

And of course, the scientists are doing this…in quail.

And why QUAIL?

Every human has a drastically different series of sexual experiences. Saying that there is a clinical correlation between human cocaine use and high risk sexual activity…well there are a LOT of things out there that correlate with increases in high risk sexual activity. Humans almost never use just one drug, they do it at different times and in different amounts. In order to really determine how cocaine specifically impacts sexual behavior, you need to reduce the variables, which means you need a model. Drugs of abuse like cocaine have similar brain effects in various species, so you have your pick, but in this case, quail is a very good choice. While there aren’t as many established studies in quail as opposed to, say, rats and mice, quail have a VERY stereotypical mating pattern. The males in particular

are highly motivated to mateguard and to mate with female quail. They demonstrate mateguarding by sitting near a female quail and they will do this for hours, even days. This is part of their natural sexual behavior pattern. It is relevant to human behavior in the sense that some drugs, including cocaine, enhance this behavior, thereby modelling the enhanced sexual motivation that occurs with humans during drug use.

And then the mating begins:

(This video shows button quail, but the pattern is the same)

Not only that, while rodents are very strongly influenced by olfactory cues, quail are visually oriented, which makes them, in this way, more similar to humans (though there is some evidence for olfactory cues, and there’s some evidence for that in humans as well). You can train them to work with visual cues, and look at motivation to mate using those cues. The scientists have already trained quail in these studies to ‘mateguard’ in response to a cue signaling a female is about to appear, and have shown that cocaine makes this behavior more difficult to extinguish. These studies can help to show what aspects of sexual behavior are specifically targeted in quail given cocaine, and help us to translate these studies to humans further down the line. The scientists also intend to study both male AND female responses. This is another good reason to use quail, while females do not mateguard, they do “squat” to show receptivity, making changes in female sexual response much easier to see (compared to rodents, for example).

In other words, it makes sense to study cocaine, it makes sense to study sexual behavior, and quail make a good model. This is a potentially valuable study that could teach us something about how cocaine changes behaviors, and the underlying mechanisms of change. It’s definitely not a waste of money.

And a final reason why targeting this study is senseless: This study is already funded. Funding has already been extended. Funding for this study was granted via the National Institutes of Health, specifically the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIH grants are not subject to whether or not some representative does or does not want them funded. Rather, they go through a peer reviewed process where a group of other scientists determine their merit, both whether the study itself is well designed and purposeful (and whether the scientist in charge can pursue it successfully), and whether the study will help advance the field. This is incredibly important, because many grants submitted to NIH seem at first to be very detailed, mechanistic, and sometimes, kind of obvious. It’s only when you really understand the scientific field that you can understand WHY a study like this is important and why it can be of benefit to science and to human health. Clearly, Senator Coburn and other representatives do not understand how scientific funding occurs or why this particular grant was chosen.

Levens N, Akins CK. “Cocaine induces conditioned place preference and increases locomotor activity in male Japanese quail.” Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2001 Jan;68(1):71-80.

Akins CK, Geary EH. “Cocaine-induced behavioral sensitization and conditioning in male Japanese quail.” Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2008 Feb;88(4):432-7. Epub 2007 Oct 9.

Levens N, Akins CK. “Chronic cocaine pretreatment facilitates Pavlovian sexual conditioning in male Japanese quail.” Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2004 Nov;79(3):451-7.

Troisi JR 2nd, Akins C. “The discriminative stimulus effects of cocaine in a pavlovian sexual approach paradigm in male Japanese quail.” Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2004 Nov;12(4):237-42.

Note: Dr. Chana Akins, principal investigator of the study targeted by Dr. Coburn’s “Wastebook”, advised me on the technical details of the study and provided further information and edits. Points on mating habits in female quail have been edited according to their instructions.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mloxton 9:53 am 12/28/2011

    I will invoke Clarke’s third law on this.
    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

    To most politicians most science is indistinguishable from magic and they are incapable of telling either pseudo-science from real science or telling the difference between candidates for the IgNoble and the Nobel prizes.

    Their profound confidence in their judgement on the matter is matched only by their level of superficiality and ignorance.

    Hence “fruit flies in Paris, France, … I kid you not”


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  2. 2. RichSchieber 11:52 am 12/28/2011

    Admit it – Coburn is correct on this one.

    At a time when the resources to fund ANY study are becoming ever more scarce, this is $356,933.14 that could have been spent elsewhere.

    Link to this
  3. 3. scicurious 12:00 pm 12/28/2011

    @RichShieber, I’m afraid I have to disagree. Scientific funding is indeed becoming more and more scarce, but this mostly means that funding at the NIH becomes much more competitive, meaning only the mostly highly scored grants will get funded. This grant was presumably extremely highly scored, because it got funded, suggesting that it is both well designed and has a high potential for research success.

    Further, the money is not just to one person. It is to that person, their employees (maintaining grad students or post-docs or lab techs), to buy their equipment and materials, to the institution they are at to maintain the laboratory space and for the veterinary technicians and others who help the laboratory run. There are many jobs in this small (by research standards it is small) pot of money. And the research itself will advance both research in drug abuse and sexually transmitted infections, benefiting the US both in the short term (jobs) and in the long term (producing information which will help in future clinical use). I do not feel this is a waste of money in any sense.

    Of course money can always be spent elsewhere, and where to cut funding is always a difficult choice, but I think cutting funding like this, and funding to the NIH in general, would be a grave mistake.

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  4. 4. mloxton 1:34 pm 12/28/2011

    @RichSchieber “… this is $356,933.14 that could have been spent elsewhere”

    So basically the panel that made the decision are fools or incompetent and overlooked alternative research that was more likely to have benefit to society or to advance basic science?

    How is it, I wonder, that you have a better insight into the specifics than they, and where do you propose they should have rather spent this funding?

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  5. 5. jsciam 1:40 pm 12/28/2011

    “Admit it – Coburn is correct on this one.”
    Absolutely not. $350k may be a lot of money to you or me as individuals, but as two rounds of funding to a scientific study of potential public health importance? Hardly.

    Coburn’s motives are as obvious as they are tired: trot out something that sounds a little silly in soundbite form, while making no attempt to understand its intent, rationale, or the process by which it was authorized. Pander to ignorant stereotypes among conservatives about “them shady science men getting rich and fat off of big government funding dollars”.

    About the only thing that can be said in his favor is that he’s for cutting military spending too, but when so many of his other views are so repugnant that’s cold comfort.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 1:49 pm 12/28/2011

    The republicans are like Pepsi Cola. The only original idea Pepsi had was when they set Michael Jackson’s hair on fire. The republicans have yet to have an original idea, so they will cut anything and everything they did not come up with. Anything that has to do with health or health care, the republicans are going to cut the funding to it so it can no longer function and so they can completely do away with it. “We, the American people, do not need health or health care and we will stop all the waste its research is placing on the American people.” You remember what an incredibly stupid thing they did to stem cell research don’t you? You cannot expect anything different from the republicans, but you would expect that since the research deals with sex, the republicans would be all for it.

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  7. 7. jamesonJones22 3:47 pm 12/28/2011

    Science is infallible! No science can ever be wasteful!! Bow down and honor the holy name of science!!!!

    If this study had found no link between cocaine and promiscuity, would it still be in the best interest of science to commission another similar study? Probably not, so i think it is safe to say that if there is already a similar study on the link between cocaine and promiscuity then this study may indeed be considered wasteful by the tax payer. Of course those involved in the study may not consider it wasteful, but such is always the case. The man digging a hole and the man filling the hole back in may not considered their jobs wasteful, but those outside the immediate range of the reality distortion field just might.

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  8. 8. mloxton 3:55 pm 12/28/2011

    @James “Science is infallible!”

    Nope, which is why we don’t trust that a single study seals the matter forever. Science is just another human tool for finding out what nature does, but it’s the best one we have.

    @James “No science can ever be wasteful!!”

    Nope, science by its very nature must be wasteful because it is fallible and also because innovation is always wasteful.
    Doesn’t seem to have stopped us from producing technology as a result though.

    @James “Bow down and honor the holy name of science!!!!”

    No bowing required in science, just a willingness to follow evidence to whatever conclusion makes the most sense rather than religion in which acceptance is blind and in disregard of evidence.

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  9. 9. marclevesque 4:44 pm 12/28/2011

    Just to be the devil’s advocate, I’d say, if it’s one or the other, the money would have been better spent on narcotic harm reduction programs.

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  10. 10. GiveItUp 5:39 pm 12/28/2011

    I know where the $356,933.14 could be used. It is almost enough to purchase two new toilet seats for the white house.

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  11. 11. jamesonJones22 9:24 pm 12/29/2011

    I guess i should have ended each of those sentences with a percontation point to denote irony or sarcasm.
    No comment trolling intended. I love science and science bloggers, but my point is that everyone, even scientists and engineers should avoid dogmatically defending a topic. I think the congressman has valid points on some of his items. Not EVERY grant from the NIH is a benefit to society as a whole.

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  12. 12. kgallagh 2:05 pm 01/6/2012

    I am not familiar with the NIH grant process, but is there a section where researchers are required to convey the “real world” application of there work? I feel that for the (tax-paying) public, researchers are responsible for conveying why their research is worth funding and how it will be applied in much broader terms (much like this post has done with this topic). A brief explanation of its broader implications that could associated with the grant number may providing a better understanding and explanation to the public of why this research was funded.

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  13. 13. tominrye 9:59 am 10/13/2014

    It is sickening to hear you “scientists” rant about “republicans” (JamesDavis) blaspheming your dogma with their talk of the need for selective funding. Your inability to even discuss the need for prioritizing public funding proves the point. It’s really not hard for a liberal arts grad to understand. Try to follow: 1. There are limited public funds. 2. There many, many important programs to be funded. 3. The analysis does not end because there are “scientists” who fervently believe (mloxton, jsclam)it to be a “benefit to society.” Don’t think you can absolve yourself by calling others ignorant.

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