Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Of drunken mice and men

I don't think it was caffeine that left me shaking my head after this web adventure.

It all started so innocently, with a story that caffeine worked better as a reward for male than for female teenagers.

A mildly interesting five-minute read, until a comment referred me to the blurb Coffee may increase drunkensess (I don't know what they were drinking) from coffeechemistry.com.

Now, because these folks tout themselves "as the coffee industry’s leading information portal" I was puzzled that they used Red Bull as an example, particularly since an undetermined portion of its effects comes from taurine (and a smidgeon of cocaine, supposedly). Bad enough, but the next paragraph appeared to just be plainly wrong
According to researchers at Temple University in Pennsylvania, the combination of caffeine and alcohol may actually decrease cognitive and reflex skills. The FDA is currently looking into the validity of this study and reconsider allowing the addition of caffeine to alcohol based drinks.
Ignoring the fact that the Food and Drug Administration probably has more important things to do, I concentrated on the folks at Temple. Well, webmd.com, more exactly, and they had the much more accurate headline "Drunk? Coffee Won't Get You Sober". Now we're getting somewhere, and I gleefully read on to see why and how these scientists administered caffeine and ethanol to mice via 'intraperitoneal injection' to make the amazing discovery that 'coffee makes you a wide-awake drunk'.

But that's getting ahead in my story. The WebMD story relies on an email from Thomas Gould, one of the authors of the study. He basically comes to the same conclusion that I have in my extensive research on the subject: "coffee may reduce the sedative effects of alcohol, which could give the false impression that people are not as intoxicated as they really are."

Good enough, though probably not enough to satisfy John McCain or the ghost of William Proxmire. We already knew that. Ah, but the researchers went further, claiming to have measured learning, anxiety and general locomotion. I give them the last one, but those first two called for another internet search to Behavioral Neuroscience. What if the mice were just looking for their car keys?

It's the caffeine, surely, but I get obsessive sometimes, and I really wanted to see how they assigned such human concepts to mice. (Note to Rupert Murdoch: unlike many academic publications they didn't charge; otherwise I wouldn't have bothered) The paper didn't say, though that may be settled science: maybe one of the 35 mouse-fondlers in their references has already provided the definitions.
In conclusion, caffeine has been shown to reverse some of the behavioral effects of ethanol, including sedation and deficits in attention, but the current study demonstrates that caffeine was unable to reverse ethanol-induced deficits in avoidance learning. However, ethanol reduced caffeine-induced anxiogenesis. Although coconsumption of ethanol and caffeine may increase alertness during intoxication, and decrease the awareness of intoxication, there may be no equivalent rescue of learning. Thus, drinkers may consume more alcohol when they are also consuming caffeine (O’Brien, McCoy, Rhodes, Wagoner, & Wolfson, 2008), producing greater intoxication and leading to greater decrements in learning.
Sounds good to me. Now tell me about the rabbits.

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