A public service announcement from a lab near you.
If you’ve ever been at an office Christmas party with crayfish, then you already know this: Social crayfish get drunker faster than loner fish.
Such is the finding of Jens Herberholz and colleagues at the University of Maryland, College Park, who recently published a study on said crayfish in the venerable Journal of Experimental Biology (which, incidentally, dates back to 1923, the year Time magazine was founded).
Herberholz, who runs the UMD’s Laboratory of Crustacean Neurobiology & Behavior, and colleagues put some juvenile crayfish in tanks by themselves for up to 10 days, or until they were effectively isolated from a social standpoint. Other crayfish, meanwhile, were kept in communal tanks. Both sets were then exposed to 200-proof ethanol baths—and the research team then recorded the behavior for 180 minutes of research fun.
In follow-up experiments, the scientists also measured intracellular responses via tiny electrodes placed on the crayfish abdominal ganglia in order to assess how neurons were activated under the conditions of drunkenness and sobriety. But while that’s surely the kind of fancy science that peer-review committees tend to admire, perhaps more telling was simply the crayfish behavior—which could be observed through the not-so-fancy science of watching.
When Procambarus clarkii are three sheets to the wind they flip their tails (<<Must-see)—which is the crayfish equivalent of drunk-dialing your ex.
And, in this case, the social crayflies started-a-tail-flippin’ at significantly lower concentrations of alcohol than the socially left-out.
“Although somewhat speculative at this point,” wrote the study’s authors, “it is tempting to suggest that the reduced sensitivity to alcohol we observed in socially isolated crayfish underlies the increase in drinking behavior that has been widely reported in socially isolated mammalian species. If social isolation causes a suppression of the alcohol-induced acute neurobehavioral response, it would be reasonable to expect that humans and non-human animals increase drinking after social isolation (or ‘exclusion’) as a result of the lower sensitivity to the cellular effects of alcohol.”
Although Herberholz and team were reluctant to generalize about whether crayfish neural circuits and behavior are likely to apply to those of mammals, the UMD study is thought-provoking—particularly given how “elusive” the cellular mechanisms of alcohol intoxication are, they wrote. “While other drugs of abuse have specific receptors in the brain, alcohol does not, but instead exerts its effects by targeting multiple neurotransmitter systems.”
In any case, the paper reminded me of a 2014 study of zebra fish, demonstrating that not only do drunken fish swim faster and more erratically, but also—importantly—that sober fish tend to follow them.
It seems we humans not only “drink like a fish,” as the expression goes, but also socially support the drunken behavior of our fish friends. Not sure how to turn that into a popular expression, but open to suggestions.
Have a great weekend—and try to keep the tail-flipping to a minimum. Remember, somewhere out there there’s a scientist watching.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.