Sex-starved flies 'turn to drink'


When spurned by a mate, male fruit flies will turn to drink, new study has found.

The US study, posted online in the journal Science, found fruit flies apparently self-medicate just like humans do, drowning their sorrows or frustrations in alcohol for some of the same reasons

To test the relationship between stress and alcohol in fruit flies, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco allowed one group of male flies to mate freely with available virgin females.

Another group of male flies had the opposite experience: The females they mingled with had already mated and were thus indifferent to any approach.

After four days, the flies in both groups fed in glass tubes outfitted with four straws, two providing a regular diet of yeast and sugar and the two containing yeast, sugar and 15 per cent alcohol.

Fruit flies as a rule will, like many humans, develop a taste for alcohol and, in time, a preference for the 15 per cent solution. But the rejected flies drank a lot more on average, supping from the spiked mixture about 70 per cent of the time, compared with about 50 per cent for their sexually sated peers.

The researchers conducted several additional experiments to rule out other explanations and determined the flies were apparently using the alcohol as a way to compensate for their frustrated desire.

"It's the first time we have shown this link between a social experience that involves reward and a drug-related behaviour" in these flies, said Ulrike Heberlein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of the paper.

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. Levels of a brain chemical that is active in regulating appetite predicted the flies' thirst for alcohol. A similar chemical is linked to drinking in humans.

Scientists have long known that other species have their methods of stress reduction. In lab studies, mice, rats and monkeys drink more after periods of isolation, studies suggest; the same is true of mice that are bullied or are victims of aggression.

"Reading this study is like looking back in time, to see the very origins of the reward circuit that drives fundamental behaviours like sex, eating and sleeping," said Dr Markus Heilig, the clinical director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Dr Heilig, who was not involved in the research, said that the findings also supported new approaches to treating alcohol dependence. Researchers are investigating several compounds aimed at blunting alcohol cravings.

New York Times