Date: 15 December 2015, 12.30 pm
Location: Bristol, United Kingdom
Occasion: Christmas shindig—Department of Neuroscience, Bristol University1
Having already tried my hand at physics, art and publishing, I find myself taking a neuroscience PhD at the University of Bristol and liking it. More specifically, I find myself striding up the road on a wet December day, squished under an umbrella against a cheerful lab mate, as we head off to our first formal social event as a lab group: the Christmas do. Intimidating pillars of intelligence though my companions may be, I have managed to convince them to let me record our excessive consumption of food and alcohol for the benefit of science, for here is an opportunity to answer the question that has plagued humankind since the dawn of time—what really happens to your brain when you drink?
We start with dinner: the River Cottage Canteen on Whiteladies Road. Guided to a private dining area, we are given the option to play our own music and soon the Spice Girls are urging us to “Be a little bit wiser, baby”. We appreciate the irony as we are served our first wine, together with some artisan root vegetables. Being somewhat allergic to red wine, I drink white: Terre Siciliane Grillo2 (no, me neither). My comrades are keener on red, so I may be drinking this alone. I am not displeased.
All science enthusiasts know that every experiment requires a control, so I take baseline recordings from myself and two contemporaries prior to alcohol consumption. Personally, I feel stressed, excited and nervous at the prospect of this project, and at the reactions of my colleagues to it. As a physicist, I am expecting absorption of the alcohol through the membranes at the back of my throat, stomach lining, and small and large intestines, into my bloodstream, as diffusion and osmotic forces take hold to try and bring my body into some sort of equilibrium state, eventually allowing alcohol to cross the blood–brain barrier and have an effect on my behaviour. In past field recordings, I have typically gone through four stages of intoxication: (1) quietness; (2) flirtatiousness; (3) obnoxiousness; and (4), a crunch point, at which a desperate need to sleep, dance or eat comes upon me. I have no scientific or logical explanation for this.
The Young Mitochondrion, a PhD student like myself, is bubbling with excitement for the project. He specialises in what he describes as basic neuroscience: looking at the brain on a cellular level and trying to understand the small processes that create the necessary energy for brain function, while ignoring what goes on at a larger scale. He prefers a rum and ginger beer, and describes himself as a happy and responsible drunk, suffering hangovers of the groggy kind. He tells me that alcohol depresses brain function and suppresses inhibitions, which does at least provide an explanation for three of my four stages.
My second control, Leeds Lad, an electrophysiology PhD student specialising in how the hormone noradrenaline affects memory formation during emotionally charged events, likes to drink whisky, as it makes him feel sophisticated. Somewhat paradoxically, he professes that his reaction to drinking is to laugh at his own jokes. He knows for sure that alcohol will dehydrate you and affect gamma transmission, and that he just can’t handle hangovers like he used to.
Two glasses in, the discussion extends down the table, first to the Large-Eyed Singer, a researcher of musical as well as neurophysiological talents who favours red wine (it tastes great and gets her drunk). What kind of drunk is she? Happy and sleepy, apparently. I endeavour to find out what is going on inside her head, but, eternally mysterious, she doesn’t care to divulge. Softly Spoken J, a man of sophistication and intellect who claims to have been a neuroscientist since birth, describes himself as being drawn to the complexity of brains. Drinking a French Merlot (2014)3, he feels that wine is good for the mind, except when it causes him to lie in bed till 6 pm the following day, feeling like he is dying.
The main course and dessert come and go, and we return to Leeds Lad, who now feels that most of his cerebral spinal fluid has been replaced by red wine. His confidence is up, he’s feeling smart, handsome, and like a better version of himself; I assure him that there’s no such thing. It would seem that stage 2 has been reached.
Three glasses down, talk of hangover cures ensues. Medical students have long assured me that the best cure is a drip of saline solution, pumped directly into the veins to replace missing fluids and salts. I don’t know if this is still a common practice before morning classes, but it certainly was amongst the young medics I knew when I started university nearly ten years ago. My neuroscience chums assure me that all that is required is pure oxygen, but this is hard to find in our department. We conclude that the carbogen (95% oxygen/5% carbon dioxide) used to perfuse brain tissue during electrophysiology experiments should be sufficient to have a therapeutic effect.
Dinner finished, and with the warm fizzy feelings of Christmas cheer inside us, we make our way back down the hill to a pub: the Brewhouse on Cotham Hill. Emboldened by the increasingly relaxed atmosphere, I venture a question at our Commander-in-Chief, a scientist of high reputation in pancreatic physiology, as well as the brain, with some 1,400 citations to his name. What effect does alcohol have on the pancreas, I ask:
“Alcohol is pretty bad for your pancreas.”
Could he elaborate, on a molecular level, or in terms of hormones, perhaps?
“Alcohol kills your pancreas.”
And could he tell us how much he has had to drink so far this afternoon?
“My pancreas says too much.”
And what is he drinking at present?
“Red Yakima, which apparently has therapeutic effects on your pancreas.”
Lord Odin, an equally highly respected scientist and joint leader of this group, is more willing to provide a sensible explanation: “Alcohol is a fantastic molecule, which integrates into every single aspect of your brain, entering every single membrane, so pretty much your whole brain,” he surmises. “It messes with your membrane physiology. The specific effects depend on the type of alcohol, so, for example, vodka affects all the brain areas that make you really sparkly.” Satisfied that a truly scientific account has been recorded, I relax into the evening, and order myself a rum and ginger beer, following the example of the Young Mitochondrian4.
Talk turns to the disconcerting effects of hangovers, especially when combined with optical illusions. Leeds Lad tells us of some top-quality banter that followed his twenty-first birthday, when his housemates turned everything in his bedroom upside down, giving him the effect upon waking that he was lying on the ceiling. In the lull of the red, he is now onto the Koppaberg cider for the necessary sugar rush and medicinal rehydration. He tops this up with two beers, to be on the safe side.
A prior commitment drags me away temporarily from my friends of frivolity, but I return a couple of hours later to find them in fine fettle, in almost the exact same positions that I left them. The Young Mitochondrian has had four rum and gingers in my absence, and is enjoying the company of his comrades all the more for it. I venture a hypothesis that the areas of his brain responsible for social interaction have been activated by all these Dark & Stormies. Lord Odin offers a fresh explanation; maybe the CA2 area of the hippocampus, deep within the brain, is firing inside our Young Mitochondrian, stimulating bonding behaviour. Our informed and unanimous group reply is that this is bollocks. “My association cortices feel highly disinhibited,” states the Northern Educator, a steadfast and responsible postdoctoral researcher, concluding the discussion.
On to Beerd on St Michael’s Hill, a mecca for beer and pizza, or, in our case, more wine. The Northern Educator, normally a picture of stability and decorum, shakily pours me a glass of rosé (Petit Papillon Grenache5) that is bigger than my head. “No fucking around,” he mutters, half to me, half to himself. Settled and fed, the conversation veers to physiological abnormalities, and one of the company reveals he has webbed toes, causing me to almost choke on my order of cheesy chips.
Now to the White Bear, a few doors down. I think my drink is bought for me, but I’m not sure. Let’s say it is a gin and tonic, that sounds like something I would ask for at this stage of the evening. I forget to record anything on my mobile phone, but I steer the conversation round to tedious matters of gender politics, because I have seemingly long since passed flirtatious and am slap-bang in the middle of the obnoxious stage. What I convince myself is “intellectual sparring” goes on between myself and some other members of the group, whilst the tired bar staff tidy up around us, making it increasingly clear that they would like us to bugger off somewhere else.
Realising that we are defeated, the spectre of the Bristol club scene looms over the group for a moment, before being dismissed because it’s a Tuesday, and some of us have experiments in the morning. Satisfied that a number of hypotheses have been put forward and a lot of data have been collected (even if solid conclusions remain elusive), we resolve to take repeat measurements at the Faculty Christmas party three days later.
Felicity Inkpen (Bristol, December 2015)
Felicity Inkpen is chronically indecisive, and has thus far pursued careers in art, physics, publishing, and now neuroscience. Her writing could charitably be described as “sporadic”, and she’ll have a Hendrick’s and tonic with cucumber, if you’re buying.
Credit: header image by Felicity Inkpen. For more original artwork by Felicity, visit felicityinkpen.co.uk.
1. This is no way implies official sanction/endorsement for this piece or the opinions expressed in it, although permission to compose it was requested and granted in advance. ↩
2. Editor’s note: Terre Siciliane indicates that this is a Sicilian wine and Grillo is the grape. You can see from the label in the photograph that this one was made by Era. We’re guessing that it may have been fresh, flavoursome and excellent value. ↩
3. Editor’s note: Merlot is grown in many parts of France, but in most of the “classical” wine-growing areas it would not be mentioned on the label; labelling by grape variety is mostly a New World thing. (Alsace is an exception.) So perhaps this is a French Country wine from the south? Some are excellent. It probably isn’t from Bordeaux, where Merlot is a subsidiary blending grape on the left bank of the Gironde estuary, while it dominates the wine-making on the right bank—see, e.g., Pomerol and St-Emilion (where it’s mixed with Cabernet Franc): these wines are almost always classified geographically, not by grape. Merlot isn’t as tannic as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, so drinking a callow 2014 wine is probably acceptable. ↩
5. Editor’s note: Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) is, of course, the grape. It’s made into rosé by removal of the (red) skin. This wine is made by the Foncalieu cooperative in Languedoc in the south of France. It’s probably slightly sweet, or at least off dry. ↩