Sexually Rejected Fruit Flies Use Booze to Cope

By Jennifer Matesa 03/16/12

Sex-deprived male flies consume up to four times as much alcohol as their sated counterparts.

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If not sex, then alcohol

Scientists are proving, with fruit flies, what women have long known about men: those who can't get a leg over are more likely to get drunk than their counterparts who can. Here’s what the researchers did: they put some horny male fruit flies together with groups of females that had never mated—receptive virgins, if you like. Another group of male flies was stuck with females that had already mated: and therefore, as happens with that species, weren’t interested in sex. After four days of contrasting sexual fortunes, the males were moved to new containers with two food choices: one soaked in booze and one not. The researchers expected all the flies to prefer the booze, but surprise!—the ones who didn’t score got drunk sooner and for longer, on average sucking up four times more alcohol than those who'd got sex. The scientists claim it’s the first discovery, in fruit flies, of a social interaction that influences future behavior. “You see that the mated males actually have an aversion to the alcohol-containing food,” says neuroscientist Galit Shohat-Ophir, who led the study at the University of California but now works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia. “And the rejected males have a high preference to that food with alcohol.”

The study, which appears today in the journal Science, shows that levels of a chemical called neuropeptide F (NPF) is linked with the flies’ desire for booze: when levels of NPF were low, the flies drank more, and vice versa. Scientists think NPF is similar to a human neuropeptide that influences behaviors like eating, sleeping, and stress response. This study also indicates that this neuropeptide system goes awry, says George Koob, professor of neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute in California. The system is “very sensitive to stress,” he explains. “For instance, after you lose a loved one, or a relationship has crashed, you get dysphoric, your NPY goes down, and this provides a strong urge to drink a lot—whether you’re a mammal or a fruit fly.”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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