In Friday’s issue of the journal Science, researchers propose a biological explanation for why frustration and disappointment may lead to alcoholism. If the research can be replicated with humans, they believe it may help scientists find new medications to fight alcoholism.
“Replicated with humans?” Yeah, that would be because this research was done with thousands of fruit flies.
One by one, male fruit flies were put into a container with a female that had just mated. She was not interested in mating again, and did everything from running away to fighting off the male. The male flies went through three hour-long sessions of this every day for four days, enough rejection to discourage them from trying any more.
After that experience, rejected flies were put in vials and given a choice of regular food or alcohol-laced food. They consistently went for the alcohol more than did the male flies that had just mated. In fact, they got plastered.
Some rejected males were moved to a different environment, where groups of males mingled with receptive females. After the males had sex, their desire for alcohol declined.
The researchers also paired thousands of other male flies with dead virgin females, so that they didn’t experience rejection but didn’t have sex either. They still chose the alcohol-laced food.
Additional research implicated a substance in the fly brain called NPF. They theorize that pleasurable activities like having sex boost the activity of brain circuits that use NPF, and that feels good. If a fly is denied sex, the system goes into deficit, driving the fly to seek other rewarding activities such as drinking alcohol.
Further research into NPF brain circuitry could shed light on the biology of alcohol abuse and possibly point to treatments someday, said Troy Zars of the University of Missouri in Columbia, who didn’t participate in the new work.
Now I’ll grant that this is interesting research into the causes of binge drinking, particularly in humans who are NOT alcoholics or stupid college students, but I think it’s stretching it a bit to postulate that this is a cause of alcoholism. What is being described in the flies’ behavior is just that, binge drinking. I’ll also grant that alcoholism in an individual can start with binge drinking… but what goes into the development of the disease is so complex, I’d just hate for scientists and medical professionals to narrow their focus to just this.
What I am interested in is how this work with the NPF substance might translate into treatments for depression, particularly for patients whose depression is traceable to social isolation and rejection.
More than anything else, though, I feel sorry for the flies.