National Geographic recently released a striking article entitled “Drinking Alone Leads to Divorce – In Rodents”.
Needless to say, it’s certainly an attention grabber, but is there science behind the article that is meaningful for humans? Do we have something to learn about relationships from our furry friends?
National Geographic thinks so. Enter the Prairie Vole, a little critter that is unique in the rodent world in that they have two things in common with us humans: They have monogamous pair bond relationships (okay, in common with only some humans), and they love to drink alcohol. Yep, these literal party animals will not turn down a drink. Nightcap, or early morning “I’ll just have a wee nip...”, they drink until they drop, and they tend to do it together. Until one vole goes a bit too far...
It is well known that one-sided heavy drinking can impact relationships and may contribute to marital discord.
A journal article from Frontiers in Psychiatry explored this concept in Prairie Voles that were already settled down into bonded couples. Then out with the miniature shot glasses to see what would happen...
The groups included couples that were both offered alcohol, couples that were only offered water, and couples where the males were given their choice of alcohol or water, but the females were not allowed to drink up (water only). Teetotalers they were not...every vole offered alcohol consumed it in a human-rodent equivalent of up to 15 bottles of wine per day. Whew, that’s dedication!
The results were interesting – couples that drank together, or abstained together, stayed together. The party animal subjects stuck with sober partners did not. These males were far more likely to hit the road and seek out novel female companionship, leaving their monogamous pair-bond behind. But why sail into the sunset?
It all came down to oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain known as a neurotransmitter, also famous for being called “The Love Hormone”. In humans, oxytocin is thought to be responsible for warm and fuzzy feelings of love and commitment, between adults as well as mothers and children. It is also associated with the biology of addiction.
Neurotransmitters in the brain are passed between brain cells called neurons, and bind to little chemical ports on neighboring neurons called neurotransmitter receptors. When the chemical neurotransmitters dock at a receptor, it functions as a signal to the next neuron, and so on until a chemical signaling pathway is formed. In this manner, neurotransmitter signaling influences the biology of behavior through tracts in the brain.
The different areas in the brain where neurotransmitter signaling is taking place, correspond to different aspects of mammalian behavior.
In the solo binge-drinking voles with wandering eyes, there were changes in the part of the brain called the periaqueductal grey, known for its high concentration of oxytocin receptor neurons.
Love was in the air for these little guys, just not with their partner.
Sad to say, but divorce in cute little rodents is a real thing too.
In the National Geographic article “Two Prairie Voles Walk Into a Bar...Then Scientists Study Alcohol’s Effects on Couples Bonding”, scientists considered what would happen if you “walked into a bar full of prairie voles” and found similar results. Intoxicated males were sowing their wild oats with the vole next door. Interesting in human divorce parallels, the neural pathways affected directly impacted anxiety and stress.
It seemed the males developed a fight or flight response under these circumstances, and flew right into what they perceived as greener pastures to relieve stress.
If you never thought you could learn something from a Prairie Vole think again – if you’re going through a divorce - tip your hat to these little guys and pass the Stoli...