Student research aims to help individuals overcome substance addiction


Kansas State’s Reward, Timing and Decision Lab conducts research involving rats to discover how diet affects impulsive decision making. The goal is to help “develop interventions for impulsive choice,” Lexe West, senior in psychology, said. 

“We had some rats that were given a standard control diet of grain pellets every day, and we had another group that was on an intermittent diet,” West said. “Some days they were fed a lot of food, and some days they were fed very little to replicate intermittent fasting. We had two other groups that were given access to icing, and we were looking to see how that affected their impulse control.”

West said the research she conducted revealed short “behavioral interventions” where the rats, left unfed for a period of time, resulted in behavioral changes.

“We were manipulating the length of interventions,” West said. “Normally, when we give a behavioral intervention, it lasts about 45 days. … It was really interesting that we found that even at six days of behavioral intervention we were seeing robust behavioral changes, and we saw that it was super effective.”

West said the findings of this study will be used to help people who struggle with impulse control.

“It gives us a better understanding of impulsive decision making, what causes certain individuals to be more impulsive than others and the different ways we can mitigate these maladaptive behaviors because they’re associated with a lot of different disease states and mental health issues,” West said. “If we can get an understanding of the actual circuitry involved with impulse control, maybe we can help individuals who struggle with that executive function.”

Kimberly Kirkpatrick, principal investigator of the Reward, Timing and Decision Lab, said the research could help those struggling with addiction using intervention tactics.

“We developed software that we used in a clinical trial with opiate use disordered patients to help them improve their self control and manage their cravings better and try not to relapse,” Kirkpatrick said. “We got some really promising results.”

Kirkpatrick, professor of psychological sciences, said moving forward, the lab will continue to explore how its research could help those with substance abuse disorders. 

“We now have a follow-up grant with the startup company who really wants to develop and commercialize the intervention we’ve translated to people,” Kirkpatrick said. “If the grant comes through, I think we could actually build software that might really help people with substance abuse disorders.” 

West received the Barry M. Goldwater scholarship in 2022 for her work in this study.

“This is a nationally competitive scholarship,” West said. “It’s funded by the government, and it’s awarded to individuals who demonstrate a bright future in science.” 

Kirkpatrick said West deserves the Goldwater scholarship because of her hard work and background. 

“The Goldwater is for students who are from underrepresented groups, and Lexe is a first-generation student so I thought that made her a good fit,” Kirkpatrick said. “I also think there’s something special about her, because Lexe comes from a background where she’s had to overcome barriers, because she has had to be the one to figure out how to finance her degree.” 

Travis Smith, assistant professor of psychological sciences, said West stood out from her peers early on in her research journey. 

“Lexe is probably one of our stars, and that was observed very early on,” Smith said. “She picked up everything in terms of how a lab operates really fast. She’s always super engaged and intellectually curious about everything we do, much more noticeably than the typical students we tend to bring in.”

West said she encourages anyone interested in research to start looking for lab opportunities at K-State.

“K-State really does offer wonderful opportunities for students to get involved,” West said. “I think the best thing you can do is just reach out to PIs [principal investigators]. A lot of them are really excited about their research, and want to share it with others. The best thing you can do is ask.”