One Wednesday this summer, I was watching as 20/20 ran yet another expose on the dangers of alcohol. However, my apathy was transformed into utter delight when in the middle of their fairly typical coverage, they unleashed one of the biggest news bombshells in years -- drunken monkeys. Apparently Frank Irvine and Roberta Palmour of McGill University are receiving a lot of attention for feeding alcohol to monkeys and watching what happens. The segment began with video footage of the original alcoholic monkey. After consuming his fill, he tried to walk, stumbled, fell on his back and then lay there, scratching his tummy and genitals simultaneously until he fell asleep -- basically a Quad freshman on a typical Friday night. The scientists then compared a cage filled with the offspring of normal monkeys to a cage filled with the offspring of alcoholic monkeys. Not surprisingly, while the normal cage resembled a small puritan village, the other cage resembled the bar room brawl scene from Roadhouse. While I was delighted to learn of such a progressive study, I was surprised to discover that monkeys have been hitting the bottle long before I even began wetting the bed. Evidently, over 30 years ago, Dr. Irvine founded a colony of inebriated monkeys on the island of St. Kitts. The green monkeys are a rarity in the animal kingdom; they voluntarily imbibe alcohol without any human manipulation. Their affinity for booze and the fact they share 96 percent of the human genome makes them perfect models for investigating the genetic roots of alcoholism. Remarkably, the scientists have discovered that the patterns of alcohol consumption in the monkey colony closely parallel those in our own society. They have all types -- abstainers, social drinkers and alcohol abusers. And among the 12 percent of alcoholics, there are both steady drinkers and binge drinkers. The steady drinkers are actually quite functional. They do well in social groups and contribute to the well-being of the colony. This finding of the productive drunk stands in stark contrast to previous human alcoholism studies, which have detailed the destructive behavior of alcoholics. On the other hand, binge drinkers are a quite different animal. They are outcasts who will consume every drop available to them, repeatedly drinking themselves into a coma. If given unrestricted access, they will kill themselves in two or three months due to kidney deterioration. Thirty years ago, when Irvine and Palmour began their study, alcoholism was thought to be a purely learned behavior, the result of environmental factors. But their study is slowly debunking this myth and proving that alcoholism is not such a simple game of monkey see-monkey do. With the recent surge in our knowledge of gene expression and manipulation, their study has become much more pertinent. Through her biochemical studies of more than 1,000 monkeys, Dr. Palmour has already identified several genes which may increase vulnerability to alcoholism in the simian population. This knowledge could eventually lead to medicinal treatments for alcoholism. Pharmaceutical companies could develop drugs which alter the harmful functions of specific proteins and neurotransmitters; or as gene therapy techniques become better developed, one could hope to target the "alcoholic" genes and negate their effects. Finally, in the realm of prevention, children of alcoholics could be tested to discover if they inherited the genetic vulnerability. These people could then modify their drinking habits in order to limit their liability. "In doing this monkey work, one of the things that is inescapable is that a part of alcoholism is biological," Palmour said in a newspaper interview. "These monkeys are not under social stress, they live in a beautiful tropical paradise, they don't have economic problems or deprivation. And yet they drink. So we hope that by knowing more about what those biological components are, we'll have better ways of intervening and ideally, preventing problems before they occur in potential alcoholics." Unfortunately, it will be many years before treatments developed as a result of this and similar studies become available to the average Joe Sixpack. We must be wary that this knowledge does not become more crippling than empowering. Having the genetic predisposition does not predestine one to become an alcoholic. While our genes may make the next beer that much more tempting, we still have the power to overcome our natural weaknesses.Comments powered by Disqus
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