Sex-Starved Fruit Flies Turn to Drink

In an article in Science, researchers suggest that alcohol stimulates the flies’ brains as a “reward” in a similar way to sexual conquest.

The work points to a brain chemical called neuropeptide F, which seems to be regulated by the flies’ behaviour.

Human brains have a similar chemical, which may react in a similar way.

The connection between alcohol and this chemical, which in humans is known as neuropeptide Y, has already been noted in studies involving hard-drinking mice.

The new work explores the link between such reward-seeking and the study of social interactions.

“It is thought that reward systems evolved to reinforce behaviours that are important for the survival of both individuals and species, like food consumption and mating,” Dr Shohat-Ophir told BBC News.

“Drugs of abuse work by hijacking the same neural pathways used by natural rewards, so we wanted to use alcohol – which is an extreme example of a compound that can affect the reward system – to get into the mechanism of what makes social interaction rewarding for animals.”

‘Control system’

Working in the laboratory of Ulrike Heberlein at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr Shohat-Ophir and colleagues subjected a number of flies to a wide variety of fates.

In one set of experiments, male flies were put in a box with five virgin females, which were receptive to the males’ advances. In another, males were locked up with females that had already mated and which thus roundly rejected the males’ attempts at sex.

Offered either their normal food slurry or a version charged with 15% alcohol, the mated males avoided the alcohol, whereas the sexually deprived males went on a comparative bender.

The team then went on a hunt for a chemical that could tie the two parts of this story together, hitting on neuropeptide F (NPF).

In mammals, the “rewarding” brain chemical is called neuropeptide Y. They found that the heavy-drinking rejected males had a lowered level of the chemical, and sated, mated males had an elevated level.

To show that the NPF is actually responsible for the change rather than just associated with it, the researchers actively manipulated just how much NPF was in the flies’ brains.

Those with depressed levels turned to drink with the same enthusiasm as the rejected males, while those with elevated levels were not interested in the alcohol on offer.

It is tempting, given that humans share a similar brain chemical, to imagine that NPF drives human behaviour as well.

However, in an accompanying article, Troy Zars of the University of Missouri wrote that “the relevance to human behaviour is obviously not yet established”.

Nevertheless, he suggested that the work linked “a rewarding social interaction with a lasting change in behaviour”.

“Identifying the NPF system as critical in this linkage could potentially influence our understanding of the mechanisms of drugs of abuse.”

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