DrunkMonkeys - Article 9 What you can learn from drunk...

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1 Article 9 What you can learn from drunk monkeys A remarkable NIH study says you’re just as likely to become an alcoholic from a bad childhood as from bad genes Being alone is not normal for rhesus monkeys, and being a loner means a monkey will most likely have a taste for alcohol. Likewise, innate sociability is key to understanding chronic alcoholism among humans, argues NIH researcher Dee Higley: “People become alcoholics not because they feel bad but because they have social problems.” B Y M EREDITH F. S MALL I AM STANDING IN AN ANIMAL RE- search lab dressed entirely in blue pa- per—paper shower cap, paper shirt and pants, even blue paper shoes. My face is covered with a plastic shield, and my hands are gloved. This getup is required because I am holding a newborn rhesus monkey, a tiny ball of fur with button- brown eyes and hair that sticks straight up off the top of its head. The baby wig- gles around in my hands, grabs my thumbs, and makes “coo-coo” noises that are heartbreakingly endearing. I look into his eyes and think that this little guy might just be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Harder to deal with is the real- ity that this research monkey may be- come a chronic alcoholic. Even more disturbing is the idea that his future alco- holism is not rooted in bad genes alone. Instead, a contrived unhappy childhood could push him toward the bottle. For the past 15 years, a National Insti- tutes of Health research team led by psy- chologist Dee Higley has been raising rhesus monkeys to develop an animal model for chronic alcoholism. Higley has discovered that although genes mat- ter when it comes to the risk of alcohol- ism, attachment to a mother and a normal early social life also have a major im- pact. When monkeys are removed from their mothers at birth and never allowed to bond with a parent, when they have to rely on peers rather than mom for social lessons, they often end up social zeros with a taste for booze. And if they have a genetic history that makes them vulnera- ble to alcohol abuse, a bad childhood will be just enough to tip the balance and turn them into chronic alcohol abusers. The complex influences of genes and experience on alcohol consumption in monkeys places Higley smack in the middle of the debate about the etiology of human alcoholism. Is alcoholism a disease, an illness beyond our control, as we have been led to believe? Or is it a product of society, of upbringing, some- thing we might be able to change? ALCOHOL IS THE MOST WIDELY used and accepted psychoactive drug in the world. Alcohol abuse is devastating to individual health, and it casts a wide net of pain across families and society. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence claims that more than 13 million American adults are al- coholics, and another 76 million have been affected by an alcoholic in the fam- ily. Drinking is also implicated in many crimes, including assault, rape, and ho- micide. In all, alcohol contributes to an estimated 100,000 deaths annually.
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