Hamsters: The biggest party animals

Lauren Vogel

Rodents, like students, prefer alcohol to water

On a weekend night at the Water Street Tavern or Ray’s Place, as students sit down at the bar, one might never guess what animal could sit next to them and drink 50 times more alcohol without even getting a hangover.

“Hamsters are used widely in alcohol research, and we’re not the only lab that uses them, because they love to drink so much,” said David Glass, professor of biological sciences.

When given the choice between a bottle of water and a bottle of 20 percent ethanol, hamsters will chose the ethanol 85-90 percent of the time. These golden hamsters, or Syrian hamsters, can drink the ethanol all day for months and show no ill effects.

Glass is receiving funding by the National Health Institute for his studies in alcohol and its effects on humans’ circadian rhythms. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the circadian clock as the 24-hour cycle in which a person sleeps about eight hours and is awake for about 16. During the hours people are awake, mental and physical functions are most active and tissue cell growth increases in the body. The National Health Institute also awarded Glass a $3 million grant to continue this work.

“We’re asking very important and timely questions of the effects of drinking on our daily rhythms or our biological clocks,” Glass said. “The reason that this is significant is because drinking disrupts our daily rhythms, and when that happens we lose sleep. If we have a job we’re not productive, we might not interact well with our families and so on.”

Glass warned this sort of behavior can cause people to drink more and can eventually lead to full-blown alcoholism.

The hamsters have three unique enzymes in their brain and liver that allow them to rapidly break down alcohol. Glass explained that because of these enzymes, the hamsters in the lab are drinking the equivalency of three or four bottles of Jack Daniels a day without feeling drunk or experiencing a hangover.

“So they’re drinking about 50 times more than, normalized for weight, a human who weighs, say, 180 pounds,” Glass said.

Glass explained many scientists believe these animals are able to drink so much because, from an evolutionary standpoint, these hamsters collect fruits and hide them in their tunnels. If the fruits were left too long, they would naturally ferment and produce ethanol, exposing the animals to large amounts of it.

Mice are also used in the lab for this research, but they are genetically altered animals. These mice have a mutation of genes called circadian clock genes that allow them to drink more than their littermates. Glass explained this is another tie-in with the biological clock system and the propensity of drinking large amounts of alcohol.

“In humans, certain individuals also have that type of mutation and that is highly correlated with alcoholism,” Glass said. “That’s a really nice link between the basic research we’re doing with the rodents and how it extends to understanding alcoholism in humans.”

Spike TV’s “Manswers” tracked Glass down to feature the hamster study on its show. Glass agreed to do the show because although it was a bit racy for him, he felt it was a great way to get the science out and make it understandable and exciting to others.

Glass explained that this study is important because many people may suffer from or have a close friend or relative that may suffer from alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

“What we’re trying to do is understand how to break that vicious cycle of drinking and circadian disruptions so that we can help prevent the effects of alcohol and alcoholism,” Glass said.

Contact student life reporter Lauren Vogel at [email protected].