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THE STRANGEST SPECIES / BEHAVIOR

Quick! What's Gray and Huge and as Drunk as a Skunk?

March 24, 1998|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cats do it. Lab rats do it. Even water buffalo do it.

Get looped, that is.

"The mongoose, when grieving over the loss of a mate or when its burrows are wiped out by a monsoon, will very often eat a plant that has psychedelic qualities," says Ronald K. Siegel, a UCLA psychopharmacologist who has studied drug use in animals for 25 years and who wrote "Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise" (Dutton, 1988).

Elephants, when stressed from the pressure of poachers, thinning of the herd or competition from other animals, become intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit, he says. "And they act in a very unelephant-like way. They act like people . . . become very aggressive, isolate themselves or become passive."

Siegel has observed a water buffalo eating poppies and lab rats given access to alcohol that drank the most before feeding ("the cocktail hour effect") and before going to sleep ("the nightcap effect").

Just as human beings have pursued altering their minds since prehistoric times (archeological remains, pictographs and linguistic analysis suggest early man delved into mind-altering drugs), so have animals and even insects, says Siegel, by ingesting fermented fruits, vegetables and other substances.

"The behavior is really universal," he says. "We share the same motivations and desires." Siegel characterizes the urge to alter one's perceptions of reality as a "fourth drive," following sex, hunger and thirst.

And once animals--and people--discover the pleasurable effects of a substance, they go to considerable trouble to revisit that particular well of pleasure again and again.

"Animals do it for the same reasons people do," says Siegel, "to change the way they feel. We are chemical organisms. Our brain is nothing more than a 3-pound sack of chemicals with natural opiates and stimulants more powerful than cocaine or opium. It is natural that we will have an affinity to natural and artificial substances that strike a resonance."

Scientists are just beginning to understand the drive to repeatedly seek out intoxicants. By using brain-scanning technology, researchers have been able to determine that the pleasurable feelings evoked by certain drugs and by alcohol are caused by a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which ferries messages from one neuron in the brain to another.

"The rise in dopamine is associated with the increase in drive and motivation to repeat a behavior," says Dr. Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist whose research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Brookhaven, N.Y., is the strongest evidence linking the rise in dopamine in the brains of cocaine addicts to feelings of euphoria. "Dopamine has been linked in a way we don't really understand with a need to repeat a given experience."

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But dopamine can also be elevated by a mother nurturing a baby or by eating ordinary food, behaviors required for survival, Volkow says. Her research found that alcoholics show a decrease in dopamine receptors in their brains, which she says may partly explain why they are driven to drink more than nonalcoholics. Volkow is exploring the dopamine hypothesis--that addicts produce too little dopamine (sometimes called the pleasure molecule), which somehow contributes to the addiction--in a number of studies.

However, dopamine is only part of the puzzle, Volkow says.

While researchers pursue clues to what happens chemically in the brain during intoxication, others are investigating the psychology of addiction. Enter the Barlab, a research facility set up like a real bar. This is where Alan Marlatt, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, studies the behavior of social drinkers who think they are drinking alcohol, but are actually drinking nonalcoholic beer.

"We found that most people were more outgoing, more relaxed socially, more talkative, and it is very blatant," says Marlatt, who adds that alcohol in low doses simulates euphoria but in high doses is a depressant. "Also in studies on responses to erotic stimuli, they report being more stimulated after a placebo drink."

Marlatt says that the college undergraduates in the study were like Pavlov's dogs, who salivated when food was presented with the ringing of a bell but through conditioning would salivate when they only heard the bell. "You bring in someone who is an experienced social drinker, put them in a bar setting and give them a drink," he says. "It is just like ringing a bell for Pavlov's dogs. It is a conditioned response. They are experiencing what they expect to experience."

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