Fruit flies are one of science’s favorite living lab pals. What haven’t they done? Scientists have sent them to space, tried to stall their ages, and most recently made them alcoholics. Anything for science, right?
In a study published in Neuron on October 25, researchers from Brown University revealed that alcohol changes the way memories are stored on a molecular level. The substance sneakily hijacks the process of storing memories, coloring the recollection as more pleasant than it originally was.
Scientists scanned the brains of alcoholic fruit flies and discovered that even one glass of wine can influence Notch, a multifunctional cellular signaling pathway that exists in most multicellular organisms. More specifically, alcohol causes the gene that encodes our body’s feel-good chemical (the neurotransmitter dopamine) receptors to be expressed differently. Alcohol doesn’t change the concentration of the neurotransmitter, but by changing the gene expression, the substance ties itself up as a happier memory.
With one glass of alcohol, the shift in encoding memory returns to normal within an hour — but the repercussions quickly add up.
“After three glasses, with an hour break in between, the pathway doesn’t return to normal after 24 hours. We think this persistence is likely what is changing the gene expression in memory circuits,” Dr. Karla Kaun, lead author and assistant professor of neuroscience, told the Independent.
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Fruit flies were the ideal candidate for this study because of their brains. Due to sheer size, fruit flies have about 100,000 neurons, while humans have 100 billion, but similarities in their core structure make them a suitable test subject.
Kaun adds that if additional research shows the effect to hold true across fruit flies and humans, then the discovery is “highly likely to translate to other forms of addiction.”