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Dec. 15, 2011

If You Give a Mouse a Beer

by Sam Flatow

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If you give a mouse a beer, he’ll decline and ask for water. Why? Probably because when you have to support such a large family, you just don’t have the time or money to spare on booze. But don’t worry, we humans can fix that pesky responsible behavior. A paper published in Addiction Biology introduced the world to a new mouse that can double as a drinking buddy.

Now, scientists have gotten mice to drink before – they even genetically engineered a few with built in tolerances. But the problem was, the mice never wanted to drink. When given a choice, they wouldn’t touch the booze. The only way to get them to loosen up was to take away their water or inject them directly, which can make for awkward conversation the next day.

It may have taken 40 generations of selective breeding, but these mice will drink all night every night and reach an average blood alcohol content of .26 (which for humans is over three times the legal driving limit and the point where the next morning turns into a detective novel called “How Did I Get Home and What Are All You People Doing In My Living Room?”). They kind of have a problem, probably because they’re designed to have a problem so that scientists can do alcoholism research. At least that’s what scientists are claiming to do. Then again, these same scientists are running the mice across a balance beam to test their performance, so who knows what’s really going on.

My suspicion is an elaborate obstacle course involving one or more “chugging” sections where the rodent must achieve a “blackout drunk” level of intoxication before he can cross the balance beam and reach the “call the ex-girlfriend” challenge. It may take about 6-7 hours for these mice to get drunk enough to compete, but progress is progress.

This experiment is about “free-choice drinking,” where the mouse is not physically forced to drink alcohol and given an alternative, water, but does so anyway. The irony is that scientists have instilled a love of poison so strong that everyday a mouse will drink until, if it were a person, it would be unable to form memories. What does that say about “free choice?”

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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