Planarians and the pharmacology of addiction: an in vivo model for K-12 education

"Me, personally, I know I don’t want to smoke, but looking at how the planarian reacted, I know why my thought of not smoking was a good choice," Bradley said.
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Project Website(s)

  • Project Description

    The Science Education Against Drug Abuse Partnership (SEADAP) project utilizes flatworms to teach K–12 and undergraduate students about how drugs of abuse work in the brain to produce addiction. The novelty of SEADAP is that it is the first drug addiction program that uses living animals and inquiry-based approaches to teach K-12 students about the science of drug addiction and hazards of using addictive substances, making it entirely distinct from older and more conventional programs such as DARE and Life Skills.

    SEADAP is founded on our extensively published research at Temple University demonstrating that planarians display addictive-like behaviors to substances such as opioids, cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and sugar contained in products (e.g., Red Bull, coffee, frappuccinos, cigarettes, beer, liquor) that children and adolescents frequently encounter in their everyday lives. We have published 28 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals validating the scientific relevance of planarians to studying drug addiction, and 12 of those articles were co-authored by local high school students in the Philadelphia area, all of whom conducted the actual research.

    The project is scientifically linked to human drug addiction because planarians produce the same chemicals that cause addiction in human drug abusers. It is ideally tailored to broad-scale learning and prevention in a K–12 environment because planarians are inexpensive, easy to use, and highly amenable to employing hands-on, inquiry-based lesson plans that enable students to study and quantify actual human-like behavioral responses to drugs of abuse, including dependence, withdrawal, anxiety, tolerance, drug-seeking, and relapse.

    “Planarian Party” teacher kits are available at the project website, listed above.

  • Abstract

    Approximately 8% of the United States population ages 12 and older are illicit drug users (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009). Despite the economic, criminal, and medical consequences associated with drug abuse, most people still do not understand that drug addiction is a brain disease. One strategy to better enhance public awareness about addiction is to develop and implement an educational program to teach the science of drug addiction at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Students exposed to such a program could be as knowledgeable about the science and consequences of drug addiction as they are about mathematics, economics, language arts, and history. Current K-12 drug abuse programs are primarily directed toward providing students with information about addiction and abused drugs (ATOD-TV, If You Drink) or dissuading students from using drugs (DARE, Life Skills Training). A long-standing gap in drug abuse education that is not addressed by existing programs is the ability for students to conduct and design experiments in live animals.

    In vivo effects of addictive substances are typically studied in mammals (humans, mice, rats), but extensive use of mammals in K–12 classrooms is impractical due to economic, practical, legal, and ethical concerns. What is needed to overcome this barrier is a non-mammalian species – one that is scientifically relevant but cheaper and more convenient than mammals. We hypothesize that planarians, an aquatic flatworm, can be used to design a hands-on, inquiry-based educational program for elementary, middle, and high school students. The program will contain lessons linked to National Science Education Standards (NSES) and state standards that will enable students to design and conduct experiments to study the pharmacology of abused drugs (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol) and learn how these pharmacological effects are used to predict and model aspects of human addiction.

    Planarians are ideal organisms because they have what some consider the earliest ‘brain’ and possess mammalian-like neurotransmitter systems that are targeted by addictive substances. Dr. Rawls’ extensive publication record studying the pharmacological effects of drugs of abuse in planarians indicates that these organisms are ideal for students to study conditions that perpetuate the addictive process, including physical dependence, withdrawal, sensitization, tolerance, and environmental place conditioning.

    The proposed partnerships between scientists, educators, and students are expected to result in the development, implementation, and dissemination of a reproducible drug abuse program for grade 4–12 students that is sustainable beyond the duration of the initial grant period. We expect this novel program to achieve the multiple goals of increasing student knowledge about the science of drug addiction, increasing student awareness about the care and use of animals in basic science research, shifting student attitudes about drug abuse, and enhancing student interest in pursuing biomedical research careers.

  • Dissemination Strategies

    Teacher Recruitment and Retention across 4 states (PA, NC, VA and NY)

    1. Total teachers trained: SEADAP has trained over 300 teachers (professional development) across 4 different states, including 125–150 in the Philadelphia area.

    2. Teacher Retention: 58% of Year 1 teacher-participants returned to the SEADAP program in Year 2 — which is an indicator of their on-going commitment to implementing the SEADAP program in their classrooms.

    3. Philadelphia: Incorporating SEADAP into the regular professional development for The School District of Philadelphia enabled us to train approximately 50 new teachers this in this academic year.

    4. Suburban Philadelphia: Expansion of SEADAP into Philadelphia suburban schools (Berks County, Chester County), which enabled us to train 10 new teachers.

    5. Pittsburgh and Western PA: SEADAP has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Mobile Science Lab and reached an additional 2000 students in western PA.

    Students Reached: SEADAP has reached approximately 6,000–8,000 students (most of whom are in PA).

  • Project Evaluation(s)

    Pre- and post-assessments were evaluated in the following areas (as of 11 January 18).

    1. Knowledge about the science of drug addiction
    2. Change in attitude about using drugs of abuse
    3. Knowledge about the use of animals in basic science research
    4. Knowledge about biomedical science careers

    Overall, students in Pennsylvania who were part of the SEADAP program had a 16% increase in all of the above.

    Middle school students showed greater pre/post increase in knowledge and attitudes than high school students.

    • Middle school students: 6th grade, 20%; 7th grade, 24%; and, 8th grade 14%
    • High school students: 9th grade, 11%; 10th grade, 2%; 11th grade 22%; and, 12th grade 5%

    Assessment by The SERVE Center.


  • Additional Information

    Student Quotes

    “Me, personally, I know I don’t want to smoke, but looking at how the planarian reacted, I know why my thought of not smoking was a good choice,” Bradley said. “It makes you think, ‘That could happen to me.”

    “It’s crazy how planarians and people both will go to scary places to get drugs!”

    “The big thing we focused on was withdrawals and how the withdrawals were worse than the actual drug. We also studied how the planarians craved more of the substance once they experienced it.”

    Teacher Quotes

    “I think this program resonates with some students who may not listen to ‘just say no,’ ” Little said. “It’s more impactful than just ‘don’t do drugs’ or ‘this is your brain on drugs.’”

    “Having the students work with live specimens in the experiments provided a richer experience, instead of watching it on video or reading it on a worksheet. They had hands-on activities, which allows them to observe actual consequences to substance abuse.”

    “They were surprised how much flatworms reacted like people to drugs and alcohol. They liked the planarians and were eager to watch them react. Doing the light/dark experiment was a good start to using the planarians and then they enjoyed the lab with the stimulates next.”

    “They could see the effects on something so small and relate it to how it impacts humans.”

    “My class was very divided on the use of substance use before we began the program. Students that were against substance use had their attitudes reinforced due to the program and provided them with more of a voice during their group discussion as they had real data in front of their eyes to back up their stance. Students that positively support substance use definitely were taken aback by the data that they were confronted with.”

    “Seeing the planarian’s reactions to the various drugs, including sucrose and caffeine, changed student perspectives on what a drug is and how their choices affect their health.”

Project Audience

Life science, biology and health science teachers and their students: Grades 4–12

Subjects Addressed

Neurology, drug abuse, drug addiction, chemicals in foods, using living animals to model human responses