Skip to main content

Breaking News: Watch Live: Gov. Newsom gives update on COVID-19 following resignation of California's top health director (Posted 08/10/20 at 12:11 p.m.)

LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Drunken Mice Could Show Why Some Humans Become Compulsive Drinkers

Three glasses of craft beer at the Mike Hess brewery in North Park, San Diego...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Three glasses of craft beer at the Mike Hess brewery in North Park, San Diego, March 28, 2018.

Mice have been getting drunk at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. They've been drinking alcohol as part of a study out Thursday in the journal Science, which looks at why some animals — and potentially humans — might become compulsive alcohol drinkers.

Defining compulsion

Consider an open bar. Drinks are free, so getting that second cocktail might be a no-brainer. But what if this bar becomes a cash bar? That's what Salk scientist Kay Tye has been asking. She's the lead on this study.

"Some people stop drinking, some people keep drinking, and then at some point the cash bar closes and then some people need to find another bar," says Tye.

Tye says compulsion is the habit of continuously seeking a reward despite the negative consequences, like a person paying for a drink when he's already had enough free ones. To find out why some people do this more than others, she and her team of researchers took images of brain activity in mice when they drank.

Photo by Shalina Chatlani

Salk institute researcher Kay Tye stands in a lab in this photo taken on November 18, 2019.

Neurological response

"We wanted to know what are these neurons doing the first time that mice experience all the way to the development of compulsive alcohol drinking?" said Tye.

Tye said researchers took images of the activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where messages are sent from neurons to the brain stem.

"What we found that was really surprising was that the neural activity on this very first contact of alcohol exposure predicted whether animals would ultimately become compulsive, weeks into the future," said Tye.

When exposed to alcohol, mice with increased brain activity could stop drinking. But those with less brain activity continued to seek alcohol, despite the consequences, which were a painful shock to the foot or a yucky taste in the hooch.

More than genetic variability

Reported by Shalina Chetlani , Video by Michael Damron

But the key here, Tye said, is that all these mice are pretty similar in their genetics and the environment they grew up in.

"They’re all raised in the same cages, same lights, same food, all that stuff. So the genetic and environmental differences are very small," said Tye. That's why she says it was surprising to see so much variability.

Tye says the research shows animals and possibly humans may develop compulsive drinking habits for many reasons. Not just genetics or the environment.

"We're just understanding how the brain works at all, so we don't know yet if all the things we are finding true in mice are also going to be true in humans," said Tye.

"But, I think the idea that you can find a signal in the brain that can predict future behavior ... on the order of weeks is extremely exciting and not something I would have predicted before we did this study."

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.


San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Photo of Shalina Chatlani

Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.