A student and professor weigh a vial of kratom tea.The same week that opioid abuse was declared a national emergency, Wingate University sophomore Kinae Ogle began a series of experiments on a supplement billed as an opioid-withdrawal treatment.

Kratom, made from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree, contains alkaloids that appear to activate opioid receptors in the brain and reduce pain. But little is known about the long-term, addictive effects of the substance that the Drug Enforcement Administration considers a “drug and chemical of concern.”

“A lot of people are using this to wean themselves off of opioids, so it could help with the problem, or it could create another level of the opioid problem,” explains assistant biology professor Tracy Davis, lead investigator and Ogle’s partner in the research, which is funded by a Reeves Summer Research Grant. “Since very little is known about the effects of kratom on any system of the body, this field of research is wide open for exploration.”

Concerned about the growing use of kratom in the United States in recent years, the DEA announced in August 2016 that it would temporarily reclassify it as a Schedule I drug but reversed the decision after public outcry. The FDA has not approved kratom for any medical use, and a handful of states have banned it. Still, it remains popular and is easily acquired online or even in some convenience stores.

“When people hear ‘natural,’ a lot of them want to jump on board,” Ogle says. “But this is a new drug. It needs to be researched.”

What she and Davis hope to determine first is how kratom affects the behavior of mice. They will then breed the mice to examine kratom’s effects on pregnancy and offspring.

Purple-gloved hands hold a mouse.Before any experiments could began, Ogle, a biology major and president of Wingate’s Pre-Veterinary Club, had to learn how to care for mice and how to interpret typical mouse behavior.

“If a mouse is stressed, they will poop and urinate and rear a lot. They will vocalize,” she says. “If they are stressed, their ears are low.”

She has learned how to properly handle the mice so they do not get injured, and she’s learned to brew them a kratom tea with plenty of sugar water to get them to drink it.

“I can’t wait to see how kratom affects them,” Ogle says. “I’m really curious to see how this drug affects these mice.”

Video study

For their first experiment, Davis and Ogle fashioned acrylic panels into a large box-style structure with a grid in the bottom to create an open-field maze.

“We are going to put them in the maze. We have GoPros set up so when we set them inside the maze, we’ll be recording their every move,” Ogle says. “There will be no one in the room, so we won’t be influencing their behavior.”

Instead, Ogle will watch the video footage and document behaviors.

“Kinae can watch the videos to see how much they move during the time period, how much they rear up, how much they poop and urinate, what areas they prefer,” Davis says.

A female student watches a mouse in an open-field maze.She’ll compare their pre-kratom behavior with their actions after being dosed with the substance, which has been shown anecdotally to reduce anxiety and depression.

“With the adult female mice, we’ll measure anxiety,” Davis syas. “Then with their offspring, we’ll see if they are addicted and if the kratom affects them.”

Within the next week, they expect to have some results regarding the first mice tested. They’ll have gathered data on their first offspring by late October.

Although the experiments are being funded through a summer-research grant, the work is expected to continue at least through Ogle’s next three years at Wingate, as additional transgenerational effects of kratom are explored. Davis, whose background is in reproductive biology and endocrinology, will help students examine a variety of factors, such as number and weight of offspring, puberty onset for female offspring and sperm count in males.

Eventually, they’ll examine blood collected from the mice to measure hormones such as cortisol. The effects of Kratom on heart, liver and kidney function as well as function and morphology of other organs will be evaluated in future experiments.

“Any student who comes into our research program, if they come to me with ideas, if it can be done, we’ll work on it together to make it come to fruition,” Davis says. “The important thing is this research is all undergraduate research. Even though I have the ideas, Kinae has to develop her own hypothesis, perform all the duties and collect all the data.”

Finding out why

Ogle says the research, which she highly recommends to her peers, was “definitely scary in the beginning, because you feel like you are going to make a lot of mistakes.”

“It’s a learning process, a great experience for you to learn and develop critical-thinking skills,” she says. “Even though it’s intimidating in the beginning, everyone should try it.”

She says Davis has helped her understand not just how to do the procedures, but the reasoning behind them.

“Kinae has been taught why we are doing what we are doing rather than just shown how to perform the duties. The knowing why is more important than just doing it,” Davis says. “Kinae has a really good grasp on that. She is good with the animals and already has a great mind for research. I believe that this research will make Kinae a standout when she applies to veterinary school.”

Ogle shares that hope.

“When I was doing my college search as a high school junior, one of the things that encouraged me to apply to Wingate was the opportunity to do research projects that include nationwide and international studies,” she wrote in her research application. “This opportunity is one of the primary reasons why I decided to attend Wingate University.”

Aug. 30, 2017