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St. Patrick’s Day is a great day to post this story from the pst week on the relationship between having sex and the desire to drink alcohol. No, it’s probably not what you think. For one, it involves fruit flies, a category to which relatively few of our readers belong.
It’s really pretty darn interesting and scientific, actually.
Troy Zars, a biologist at the University of Missouri and an expert in neurobiology, did a study of male fruit flies. Some of them had mated repeatedly for several days. Others were males whom female fruit flies had spurned. A third group were males who had been denied access to female flies altogether. To me, the most impressive part of the experiment may have simply been getting the male fruit flies sorted into these three categories. I will not speculate on what led some flies to be spurned and how others were denied access to female flies, but yes it does bring back memories of college. (Not necessarily my own memories. Ahem.)
The fruit flies were then let loose to choose between one of two foods: one normal food (for a fruit fly, anyway) and the other the same food saturated in a 15% ethanol (that’s alcohol, to you) solution.
Wait, wait, wait — before I give you the results: what do you think happened? Which type of flies preferred which food, if any? Write down your answer before you come back to read the rest. (Or don’t — who do I think I’m kidding?)
OK, the flies that had been doing the nasty for a couple of days preferred … drum roll … either. “Just give me something to eat, I’m worn out.” No celebratory beer with the boys, no post-coital cognac. I’ll take whatever’s on the plate, thanks.
What about spurned males and those denied access to females? You know the drill — WRITE IT DOWN BEFORE YOU READ ON!
Such flies … chose to get drunk. Yeah, really. “Chose” may not be the precise word, but they were more likely to partake of the spiked food. Were they drowning their sorrows? Come on, these are fruit flies! But there may be something even more basic, something that gives us insights into human drinking behavior as well. In his article, published in Science, Zars said that the male Drosophila melanogaster flies may turn to alcohol to fulfill a physiological demand for a reward, with alcohol intoxication in effect serving as a poor second proxy for hot fruit fly sex. Understanding why rejected male flies find solace in ethanol could help treat human addictions.
“Identifying the molecular and genetic mechanisms controlling the demand for reward in fruit flies could potentially influence our understanding of drug and alcohol abuse in humans, since previous studies have detailed similarities between signaling pathways in fruit flies and mammals,” Zars said.
Zars said the new discovery could lead to greater understanding of the relationship between the social and physical causes of substance abuse in humans.
“The authors provide new insights into a neural circuit that links a rewarding social interaction with a lasting change in behavior preference,” Zars said.
So when you see guys drinking at the bar this St. Patrick’s Day Saturday night — well, don’t draw any firm conclusions. These are flies and we are people, after all. And you really want to know who gets drunk after they either did or didn’t find some sexual reward on the holiday weekend.
More seriously, this study has greater implications for drug regulation. Living things — even fruit flies — crave rewards, and when they can’t get Reward A they’re more likely to make up for it with Reward B. One such reward is sexual activity. Another is getting intoxicated. Those who avoid both turn out like Rick Santorum. Society has to make way for the fact that we living things do seek rewards; it has to recognize that blocking that reward-seeking behavior altogether “goes against nature” in a more fundamental way than anything about which the likes of Rick Santorum preach.
At worst, the reward a living entity substitutes for sex or intoxication may be one that comes at others’ expense. But enough about Mitt Romney and his yearnings. Happy St. Pat’s Day, everyone!