Could Drunk Fruit Flies Help Scientists Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

By John Lavitt 05/23/16

Scientists are studying alcohol's effects on fruit flies to better understand how alcohol exposure can reprogram the human brain.

Could Drunk Fruit Flies Help Scientists Treat Alcohol Use Disorder?

At the University of Texas at Austin, researchers are providing fruit flies with an open bar in order to understand how alcohol exposure can reprogram the brain's neurons. Neuroscientist Alfredo Ghezzi spoke to Reporting Texas about the research. “It’s pretty funny actually. They fly erratically, and then they start stumbling, and eventually they pass out,” he said.

When it comes to alcohol, fruit flies are naturally drawn to booze. This allows the team to investigate which genes are involved in alcohol addiction, including those involved in how alcohol tolerance is developed. Tolerance is one of the first adaptations the nervous system makes to repeated alcohol consumption, and it may be linked to addictive behavior. As fruit flies drink more, Ghezzi explained, they build up a tolerance, allowing them to swill more without getting drunk. But the more alcohol the fruit flies consume—via ethanol vapors or boozy molasses in Ghezzi's studies—the more intense the withdrawal symptoms are when they stop. 

This much booze can overstimulate their nervous systems, like in humans. When the fruit flies are cut off from heavy drinking, they get jittery, Ghezzi observed. The fruit flies may turn to more alcohol to ease withdrawal, which may lead to addiction. Ghezzi and his team want to figure out why alcoholism is so difficult to treat. Could there also be a neural indicator that can predict human genetic susceptibility to alcoholism? 

Other studies on fruit flies and alcohol reveal more similarities they share with intoxicated human beings. For example, other researchers have observed that drunk fruit flies will lower their standards when choosing a mate. (The insect version of beer goggles?) And when they are rejected by the opposite sex, they will tend to eat less and drink more.

Fruit flies are drawn to alcohol for more than imbibing. They use it to protect their babies from dangerous predators as well. Past research has found that mothers seek fermenting fruit to lay their eggs in, to "medicate" the larvae, because the alcohol is toxic to parasitic wasps. 

Ghezzi's fruit fly experiment is another step toward being able to identify and diagnose genes that indicate alcohol use disorder, and to perhaps develop a genetic treatment for alcoholism.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.