Study looks into psychology of binge drinking

Alaska researcher hopes rats will provide insight into human behavior

Posted: Monday, December 04, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The chubby male in the corner couldn't wait to hit the drinks. He paced. He squirmed. He scratched his potbelly.

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"Hold on," University of Alaska Anchorage psychology research student Noelle Borgardt yelled as she screwed the cap off a large bottle of Everclear. "I'm whipping up the drinks right now."

The impatient male, actually a rat, shoved its pink nose through the cage and quivered.

"In the mornings, I'm basically a bartender," Borgardt said, pouring alcohol into a graduated cylinder. "But for the rats, it's night. It's time to get in the car and find a drink."

Of course, the rats can't exactly hop into a car and drive, but they can get a good, stiff drink. They can, in fact, have as many as they want.

The rats are part of UAA associate professor Eric Murphy's long-term experiment on binge drinking. He's looking for what makes rats - and perhaps people - choose to drink excessively.

So far he has discovered that stimuli such as loud noises, people walking by and unfamiliar voices plus a variety of drink flavors increase both frequency rates and desire for alcohol. Binge drinking is more than drinking to feel drunk. At least for the rats.

He has published his findings in a variety of medical journals, including the 2006 volume of Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Murphy is unsure if his results mirror human behavior. Still, he can't help noticing that the rats possess an uncanny knack for imitating people. They chug their alcohol as quickly as they can, then glance around impatiently as if looking for more.

"It's like drinking and then saying, 'Hey, bartender, give me another beer,"' he said. " 'Come on, I really want another beer."'

Murphy doesn't look like the kind of person who hangs out with rats. Tall and well-groomed, he possesses a boyish enthusiasm that makes him seem far younger than his 32 years. He stumbled into his profession as a fourth-year undeclared major at UAA when he took a psychology course that included a rat behavior lab.

"And that was it," he said. "From that day on, I was a psych major."

He stayed with the rats for two more years and later attended graduate school at the University of Washington.

"By that time, rats were like pets to me," he said.

After graduation, Murphy returned to teach at UAA, where he branched out to binge-drinking experiments.

"It's a huge problem on college campuses across the country," he said. "But it's also a gold mine, research-wise."

Binge drinking, defined as anywhere from five to six drinks in one sitting for males and four to five for females, has been cited by the Center for Science in the Public Interest as the most serious concern on campus nationwide. According to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, 44 percent of college students engaged in some type of binge drinking in the two weeks before being surveyed.

In Alaska, the statistics mirror the national average. UAA dean of students Bruce Schultz cited numbers from the 2005 Core Institute's survey on alcohol and drugs, which revealed that 44 percent of UAA students living on campus engaged in some type of binge drinking. That percentage, Schultz said, has increased slightly over the past few years.

Over in the UAA psychology department's rat running room, Murphy and his two undergraduate lab assistants, Borgardt and Nichole Easterbrooks, donned white lab coats and bustled about, setting down rat containers and jotting notes in serious-looking binders labeled "Rat Weight Log" and "Rat Colony Documentation." The rats are normally housed next to a psychology classroom in a small, dim area that smells of wood shavings and Purina Rat Chow.

But every weekday morning they're moved to a larger room holding six white experiment boxes called "Skinner boxes," the shape of industrial-sized microwave ovens. The outside handles resemble those on kitchen cabinets, but open one and all hits of domesticity disappear. Inside are a cage, a domed light and a feeding lever, which opens a slot with a small dipper of alcohol.

Experiments are run five days a week. Sessions average 30 minutes, and alcohol is available through the dipper at random intervals, contingent on pressing the lever.

They're all male rats. Because of estro-cycles, Murphy says, female rats are a bit too complicated for the study (think moody; think of rats with PMS binge-drinking).

The rats are placed in the Skinner box. Once the light flashes on, they frantically press the lever. Every so many seconds, the light blinks off and the rats have three seconds to slug down a drink. Then the light pops back on and the rats return to pressing the lever.

"It's like being at a bar and having the waitress walk by," Murphy said. "It's like saying, 'Hey, get me another one.'"

After 10 minutes, about the time it takes for the alcohol to hit the system, the lever presses taper off. However, Murphy has found that this decrease isn't due to motor impairment (too drunk to press the lever), satiation (too full to drink) or fatigue (too tired to press the lever). Instead, it's caused by "habituation," which happens once the rats become used to the flavor.

"Pretty much, they've lost their motivation," Murphy said.

The best scenario for problem-free drinking, he believes, is a controlled environment with little alcohol variety.

"(To) put it simply, if a person wants to control binge drinking, they might want to stick to the same drink," Murphy said.

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