The March issue of Science, touted as “the world’s leading journal of original scientific research, global news and commentary, included an article entitled Sexual Deprivation Increases Ethanol Intake in Drosophila. Which may not mean much, until you realize that in plain English it’s essentially “fruit flies who’ve had their sexual advances rejected drink more alcohol.” Here’s the abstract:
The brain’s reward systems reinforce behaviors required for species survival, including sex, food consumption, and social interaction. Drugs of abuse co-opt these neural pathways, which can lead to addiction. Here, we used Drosophila melanogaster to investigate the relationship between natural and drug rewards. In males, mating increased, whereas sexual deprivation reduced, neuropeptide F (NPF) levels. Activation or inhibition of the NPF system in turn reduced or enhanced ethanol preference. These results thus link sexual experience, NPF system activity, and ethanol consumption. Artificial activation of NPF neurons was in itself rewarding and precluded the ability of ethanol to act as a reward. We propose that activity of the NPF–NPF receptor axis represents the state of the fly reward system and modifies behavior accordingly.
Science Magazine’s News Blog featured the article in more layman’s terms as Sexually Rejected Flies Turn to Booze, and described the results as follows.
Offer a male fruit fly a choice between food soaked in alcohol and its nonalcoholic equivalent, and his decision will depend on whether he’s mated recently or been rejected by a female. Flies that have been given the cold shoulder are more likely to go for the booze, researchers have found. It’s the first discovery, in fruit flies, of a social interaction that influences future behavior.
Apparently that’s not the outcome the scientists expected.
The researchers expected all of the flies to prefer alcohol, but that’s not what they found. “You see that the mated males actually have an aversion to the alcohol-containing food,” Shohat-Ophir says. “And the rejected males have a high preference to that food with alcohol.” On average, the rejected males drank four times more alcohol than the mated ones, her team reports.
In the New York Times’ coverage — Learning From the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly — they make the leap to human addiction, which I find a little troubling. “Fruit flies apparently self-medicate just like many humans do, drowning their sorrows or frustrations for some of the same reasons.” Which is okay, so far, but then they quote an alcohol addiction researcher who was not involved in the study, Dr. Markus Heilig, who believes the study “also supported new approaches to treating alcohol dependence,” including the investigation of “several compounds aimed at blunting alcohol urges.” And earlier in the Times’ reporting, they state that the study “suggests that some elements of the brain’s reward system have changed very little during evolution, and these include some of the mechanisms that support addiction.”
But that presupposes that the urge to drink alcohol is always bad, something that people should never do, and that it necessarily leads to addiction. And that, of course, it not the least bit true. Once upon a time, it meant the difference between living long enough to procreate and dying without issue. When it was safer to drink than the water, those humans with a greater tolerance for alcohol survived while those that couldn’t did not. If you’re reading this right now, it’s likely you can thank your ancient ancestors’ ability to handle their drink.
Even today, people who drink moderately tend to outlive those who never drink alcohol. Even those that drink heavily still tend to outlive those who never drink alcohol. It’s just that small fraction of the population that cannot handle alcohol and can be considered alcoholics, whether genetic or social or simply weak-willed. And for their failings, the world is cursed with neo-prohibitionists hell bent on the idea if even one person can’t handle alcohol, then dagnabbit no one should be able to enjoy it.
But so much of this type of research seems to play into their hands, making the assumption — very, very wrong in my opinion — that alcohol is bad for people, and bad for society, and that drinking alcohol always leads to alcoholism. It’s usually the starting premise. But it’s a false premise, because the majority of people who drink alcohol do so responsibly and in moderation and do not fall prey to alcoholism after their first (or tenth, or 100th or 1000th) sip.
And like the rejected fruit fly, sometimes a beer is just the thing to help get over a bitter rejection, or just a long, tough day at work. The calming effect of a beer after work or with dinner is part of a healthy lifestyle for many, many people. For a majority of people, there’s nothing wrong with that, and it does not signal the onset of addiction or any sort of problem whatsoever. And that’s my takeaway from the fruit fly, too. Sometimes you just need a beer to drown your sorrows.