Matt – Drug abuse is one of the leading preventable causes of premature death in the world. One of the main problems is the potential for addiction: habitual, compulsive drug seeking, often associated with severe social and emotional costs and struggles with repeated quit attempts and relapse. The relatively small number of regular drug users who become addicted, as well as the strong evidence for heritability (e.g.: – from looking at twins) shows that there is a genetic component to addiction. The specific genes involved, however, remain elusive.
In our lab, we try to understand how genetics affect some aspects of addiction (compulsivity, relapse and drug preference) by using zebrafish. These tiny freshwater fish are commonly used in genetic studies, as their entire genetic code has been cracked. We have developed behavioural tests that are similar to addiction-related behaviours (e.g.: – compulsive drug seeking) and we test fish that have specific differences in their genes. We then relate this to human addicts to try to understand better the way that genes affect this complex and destructive behaviour. The goal is that one day we can have personalised rehabilitation treatments individually tailored to people’s specific genetic needs.
Kate – There’s an assumption often made that scientists and artists are different species – for me, we’re both problem solvers, enquiring minds exploring a common humanity and trying to communicate what we’ve discovered.
The art world can get preoccupied by the idea that it’s no longer possible to be original; collaborating at the coal face of scientific research, it’s not hard to justify that art can be relevant, pursue unique themes and engage many types of people – and that an audience can be surprised and intrigued through these kinds of events and exhibitions really engage with these two separate but linked fields that can seem to laymen remote or daunting. It’s a real pleasure to be part of that. Working with Matt has been great because it’s given me the chance to investigate an area I’d been interested in but not had either access to or an excuse to explore before.
One of the things that our areas of work have in common is the constant balancing of practical detail and ‘Big Picture’ thinking. And collaborating as laymen in each other’s fields has led us both to discover new ways of engaging an audience.
“People who are impulsive can experience stimuli in radically different ways to their non-impulsive peers – ‘Pub Interior’ is at first sight an unassuming place but look closer and the fish (used as totems for addiction) are everywhere. It’s one environment experienced two ways.
Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ was social commentary; by overlaying the brain mechanics the role of neuroscience in addiction flips the way we think about the subject, how it is both sociological and biological. The scratchcards are a limited edition – a game of risk that reflects the real world gamble of our genes – whether we are born predisposed to be addicted, or not so vulnerable to potentially risky impulses.”