Winston Churchill once described his life rule as ‘smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them’. Was he on to something? Alcohol is so widely accepted in our society and what’s more unnerving is that the abuse of alcohol and binge drinking is vast becoming accepted and dare I say it a proud aspect of British culture.
So what brings us to drink to these extents? Escapism. We want to feel good and forget all things bad and inhibiting in our lives, or perhaps feel nothing at all. And it certainly is not just Brits that seek comfort in escapism. Suppose your Vicodins and your Valiums, were as readily distributed in the UK as they are in the US, would we be abusing these drugs too in our coping strategies? America may be considered a ‘sick nation’ with its worrying prescription drug abuse problems, but are we that different? Could the UK be considered a drunken nation? And with alcohol ranked within the top 5 most dangerous drugs, it’s time to begin investing our efforts into understanding how our social environments can modulate behaviour.
In a new study lead by Ulrike Heberlein, the brain’s reward mechanism was scrutinized in Drosophila flies. The study revealed that when sexually deprived, the flies exhibited a tendency for more alcohol consumption. The experimental set up entailed the pairing of male fruit flies with females that were either keen to copulate (virgins) or females unwilling (already mated). Paired up, the male flies were either left sexually satisfied or frustrated. Next the flies were allowed to choose food that was either spiked with alcohol or not. A correlation between each of the groups of flies and their subsequent preference for alcohol was measured. The scientists discovered that the flies drank significantly more when they were sexually deprived. To confirm that it was the lack of sex that drove the flies to drink instead of rejection, virgin male flies were then placed with decapitated female flies. Here the females won’t reject their partners per se, but can’t exactly copulate either.
What drove them to drink? Their actions are explained by the neurotransmitter, neuropeptide F (NPF). When sexually deprived, the flies exhibit a decline in NPF levels. This deficit increases reward-seeking behaviour and the flies act accordingly to get their next NPF ‘hit’, which in their social environment is alcohol. After sex however, NPF levels expressed in the brain are high, resulting in the flies staying sober and reward-seeking behaviour is no longer seen.
This article evidently demonstrates a clear connection between sexual activity and drinking. Whilst the study was indeed conducted on flies, many animals, including us, possess similar neurological reward systems. These positive feelings and enjoyments are essential for species survival. However, we live in a world that can tap into these reward systems by other means, allowing us to self-medicate relatively easily.
In the society we live in, we prefer the quick pleasure ‘fix’ rather than perhaps the more long winded (and arguably longer lasting) coping mechanisms required to equip us in modern times. The study raises very interesting questions not only about what measures we take to attain out next neurotransmitter ‘hit’, but perhaps the more importantly, what leads us to it? Let’s raise our glasses to a hopeful future whereby non-pharmacological reward mechanisms become as readily accepted in our social environment as alcohol currently is. In the meantime, the findings from the scientific community are perhaps just the wake-up call we need. Cheers.
G. Shohat-Ophir et al. Science. 335. p1351-1354