What small furry rodent do scientists turn to when they need to study the effects of alcohol abuse on humans? That would be the prairie vole: nature's frat boy.
Rats and mice just aren't social enough. Monkeys are too expensive (believe me, I know). There's only one animal researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical centre can turn to in order to discovery new ways to treat alcoholism?
This guy, right here.
It turns out that the prairie vole, native to central North America, is the perfect animal to get drunk in the name of science. Not only does this furry little bastard fulfil the social requirements for testing, mating for life and sharing strong familiar bonds, they also love alcohol.
Seriously, they've done taste tests.
"They not only drink alcohol, they prefer it over water," says Allison Anacker, a neuroscience graduate student at OHSU. Taste tests show they prefer drinks with 6 percent alcohol – about the same as beer, notes Andrey Ryabinin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at OHSU.
Not only are prairie voles drinkers, they're social drinkers. Like university students, these tiny rodents tend to drink more when their friends and family are around.
A study published in the Addiction Biology journal discovered that prairie voles drank more alcohol when caged with their siblings. Given two bottles, one with normal water and one spiked with alcohol, isolated voles drank equally from both bottles. When paired with a family member, the alcohol-spiked bottle accounted for 4/5 of the critters' fluid intake.
I also drink more when my family is around, though I suspect that's for entirely different reasons.
What's more interesting still is the fact that two related voles, each with their own separate set of water bottles, match each other drink-for-drink.
"They get a buzz and somehow they are getting the other vole to match their level of intoxication. At least that's the idea we have," Ryabinin says. The researchers don't yet know how the voles coordinate their drinking. Only alcohol prompts the behaviour. In a parallel experiment using water spiked with saccharine, a non-caloric sweetener loved by voles, the paired animals drank more of the sweet drink but didn't match each other's intake.
Rodent drinking contests!
Of course getting voles drink is more than just a good time. Researchers believe they could use the animals to test the effect of social interaction on drugs like naltrexone, used to keep alcoholics from drinking.
As for the drinking contest, researchers suspect part of the brain's reward system - dopamine signalling - may be enhanced by the closeness of family members, leading to a greater feeling of reward from alcohol consumption.
So the next time so0meone catches you bottle feeding voles malt liquor, just put on your best intelligent face and proudly proclaim that you're getting that rodent ripped FOR SCIENCE!
A real party animal helps scientists study alcohol abuse [Oregon Live]