Hamsters drink up in alcohol study

Ariel Lev

Researchers in the Kent State University Department of Biological Sciences are studying the effects of alcohol with the help of a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Professor David Glass and graduate student Christina Ruby are studying the effects of alcohol on the circadian clock. The circadian clock is the body’s internal clock, which regulates the ability to go to sleep and wake up in a normal fashion. However, because of their surprising similarities, these tests are being conducted on hamsters instead of people.

“We are using hamsters because, for other studies on the circadian clock, the hamster is the animal of choice,” Glass said. “Their rhythms are very clear and predictable and they’re easy to maintain in the lab. They also love to drink alcohol.”

“We keep the animals on chronic alcohol and study the effects on their sleep/wake cycle. We give them a constant diet of ethanol, on par with the level of alcohol you would find in a good merlot,” Glass said.

The hamsters are kept on a constant alcohol supply in order to keep accurate results.

“Part of the reason for problems in an alcoholic’s life is the impact alcohol has on the circadian clock,” Glass said. “So far, we think alcohol prevents photic information necessary for proper clock activity from reaching the brain,” Glass said. “This information is critical for daily activity.”

This means that alcohol prevents information provided by light from entering the brain. Because the body has trouble determining what time of day it is, it can’t function properly, Glass said.

“A light pulse is delivered during the hamsters’ dark phase to see if it will advance them,” Ruby said. “We are looking at how, specifically, light stimulus is effected by drinking alcohol.”

This test is used to determine how alcohol affects the hamsters’ sleep/wake cycle. Delivering light pulses to the hamsters gives an indication of how responsive they are after heavy drinking.

The same test is performed on hamsters that are given water instead of alcohol. Some hamsters are given alcohol through high-dose injections and some are given alcohol to drink.

“The animals given acute injections of ethanol had a shift that was about one-half that of the water animals,” Ruby said. “Now, we are trying to see if we get the same results with drinking as we get with injections.”

The researchers are also doing studies to test the effects of withdrawal from alcohol on the sleep/wake cycle.

“When you put yourself through withdrawal, you are suffering from the same thing as an alcoholic, only on a smaller scale,” Glass said. “(Withdrawal) effects sleep, the ability to study, and the ability to perform well.”

Withdrawal can be results of alcoholism, Ruby said.

“There are detrimental effects seen during withdrawal even more than during drinking,” she said.

These tests are designed to study alcohol’s effects on the body in an entirely new way.

“We are trying to find out the effects on circadian rhythms during drinking and after, during withdrawal,” Glass said. “Nobody else is doing these studies. We are uniquely set up to measure changes in the brain’s neuro-output while drinking and measure the daily sleep/wake cycle.”

Kent State researchers are also studying the tendency of a recovering alcoholic to relapse and begin drinking again.

“We are studying the alcohol deprivation effect, which causes people to drink more after a period of withdrawal than they did before,” Ruby said. “I think that’s the case with a lot of drugs of abuse.”

Alcoholism, however, is perceived as a disease that affects only those who are under the constant influence of alcohol, Glass said.

“Recovering alcoholics also suffer from abnormal daily rhythms in the sleep/wake cycle,” Glass said. “People associate alcoholism with the period in which the drinking occurs. What they don’t appreciate is the negative effects of withdrawal.”

Researchers said they hope that the conclusions drawn from this study will be useful to people’s daily lives.

“We hope to be able to provide valuable information highly relevant to the human situation on how alcohol affects the brain and the circadian clock,” Glass said.

Contact sciences reporter Ariel Lev at [email protected].