A glass of cold beer after a hot day of hard work. A glass of wine on your anniversary dinner. A cocktail at the beach, complete with jaunty umbrella. We drink alcohol on many occasions, for many reasons – it acts as a way to relax and a means to celebrate. A ubiquitous drink that we have enjoyed throughout history, alcohol forms an almost inseparable part of much of our culture.
Yet alcohol has a darker side – one in which the glass of beer or wine leads to another glass, and another, and so on into drunken paralysis. A side in which the feeling of celebration is replaced by the feeling of anger, where that one cocktail on holiday turns into a bottle of bourbon each night. A side where alcohol becomes a toxic friend who destroys your life and yet one whom you simply cannot live without.
Alcohol addiction is a major problem across the world, driven by the cheap cost of alcoholic drinks and the ease of obtaining them. Yet despite this, we often have difficulties saying why addiction occurs – what exactly is the difference between the dependent alcoholic and the social drinker? Where does addiction start and how does it progress? How does alcohol dependence affect our health, be it in the short term or the long term?
These questions become even more difficult to answer when we move beyond alcohol and look into the field of drug dependence. The sheer variety of drugs that are available in modern society means that researchers need to cover more ground, yet the illegal nature of the addiction means that researchers are often poorly funded. Despite this, the same questions need to be answered – where does addiction begin, how does it progress, and what are the health implications?
As with many questions about human behavior, the answers revolve around a number of factors, from the psychological to the Neurochemical. This in turn means that researchers in the field of addiction must balance many different factors when trying to identify those that have the strongest or most critical effects. This is often done is through the use of animal models – most commonly the mice and rats that are used in laboratories around the world. Both species can develop alcohol or drug dependence, and both develop health issues that are analogous to human ones. For this reason, much ground-breaking work in the field of addiction has been performed with the help of animal researchers.
Mice and rats are, naturally enough, different to humans. Humans drink alcohol because they enjoy it and they enjoy the affects it brings. Rats dislike the taste of alcohol as well as the effects, which means that they will voluntarily drink it up to a certain point but no further. This aversion to alcohol means that rats are a good model for the blood- alcohol levels of short-term binge drinkers, yet cannot simulate the much greater, continuously-high levels of alcohol found in the system of a human alcoholic. Methods do exist to reach these higher blood-alcohol levels, usually by injecting or force feeding the rats with alcohol. However, these are stressful for the animals, producing a number of stress-related hormones that can interfere with the biochemical mechanisms being studied. Similarly, these methods are difficult to perform over long periods of time, making them an unreliable simulation of alcoholism. There is thus a need for better modeling of alcoholism in animal models, and it is this need which the team at LJARI set out to fulfill.