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New hormone treatment reduces alcoholism in monkeys and it’s now on track to help humans

Starting off with a bummer of a fact is never ideal, but, according to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 15 million people struggle with alcoholism—and that’s just in the US. What’s worse is that 95 thousand of them are also dying with problems related to alcohol. Treatments for the addiction are limited, with one of the most prevailing options being counselling. However, scientists have recently uncovered a new possibility that could emerge as a method of treatment for humans—by finding a way to suppress drinking in monkeys. Yes, that’s right, monkeys

Scientists have long attempted to find methods to aid the creation and maintenance of permanent lifestyle changes in the treatment of alcoholism. Many of us see monkeys simply as our primitive, banana-eating counterparts, but what if I told you that they are actually part of a new scientific breakthrough that could help treat issues with alcoholism?

This week, a recent discovery has made waves in the scientific community as a peer-reviewed study, published in Cell Metabolism on Tuesday 1 February, brought attention to the hormone FGF21. A team of researchers found that this special little hormone can suppress alcohol consumption in monkeys.

“Using hormones as a therapeutic approach to treat substance use disorders is relatively novel,” Doctor Kyle Flippo, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist at the University of Iowa, told the the Daily Beast.

Flippo and his team’s study revealed that when given an analogue compound—a chemical compound structurally similar to another but slightly differing in composition—of fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21), the alcohol loving primates’ hooch intake reduced by a whopping 50 per cent.

Previously, evidence has shown that mutations in the receptor for FGF21 have actually resulted in increased alcohol consumption in humans across a variety of ethnic groups and populations. However, ‘ditching the drink’ now seems like a viable option with an analogue for FGF21 for those struggling with alcohol addiction. But how does it really work?

Well, here’s the gist of it all. Scientists from both the University of Iowa and the University of Copenhagen have come up with new plans to therapeutically target neural pathways that work to regulate animal consumption of alcohol. An analogue to the hormone FGF21, produced in the liver, has proven successful at reducing the amount of alcohol consumed in both vervet monkeys and mice. The mice, who were conditioned to prefer alcohol with exposure to increased concentrations over time, showed similar results to the monkeys and, after measuring brain activity, identified the brain circuit that’s altered by FGF21.

The story of how the FGF21 analogue came to be used by Filippo and his team is interesting. The analogue was originally developed by Pfizer as a long-lasting version of the original hormone, aimed to treat diabetes and obesity in humans. A long way from its humble beginnings as a compound great at helping humans lose weight—but not effective at reducing blood glucose levels for diabetics—it was dusted off for a new lease of life as a possible inhibitor for alcohol cravings.

In the study, the researchers reported: “Mammals began consuming alcohol from fermented fruit long before humans developed methods to produce alcohol from distillation.” Looks like monkey business isn’t all bad, is it?

Vervet monkeys are the apes involved in this research. A specific colony of green vervet monkeys on Saint Kitts island were of choice for the researchers, since they possess several similar characteristics to humans, including a particular liking for alcohol at times. Yes, monkeys like booze too apparently—and they have even been known to steal drinks from people in bars. The journal detailed this idea by stating: “The vervet monkey population is comprised of alcohol avoiders, moderate alcohol drinkers, and a group of heavy drinkers.”

In the study, twenty vervet monkeys with the innate preference for moonshine were given access to it four hours a day for four days in total. Don’t worry, they weren’t hopped up on the stuff. Once their baseline of drinking behaviour was established, the monkeys were split into two groups. One group was the placebo gang, while the other received the new analogue FGF21 treatment.

After the researchers recorded their alcohol consumption post treatment (via fermented fruit), it was found that the monkeys who received the hormone treatment drank 50 per cent less than they did at their baseline level. Therefore, proving that the method can “​​robustly suppress alcohol consumption.”

“Given that excessive alcohol consumption negatively impacts health and survival, it is not surprising that numerous physiological systems have evolved to sense and regulate alcohol consumption in mammals,” the journal chronicled. Explaining further to the Daily Beast, Doctor Filippo said “Our results provide a mechanism for a liver-to-brain endocrine feedback loop that presumably functions to protect the liver from damage.”

“The heavy drinkers will consume alcohol to intoxication if possible, thereby offering a preclinical model of alcohol drinking that may more closely reflect aspects of harmful drinking in humans,” the researchers further explained in Cell Metabolism.

This treatment isn’t entirely above board, ethically speaking. Although the vervet monkeys do exhibit a predisposition to liking alcohol, getting them drunk in the name of research does blur the line between necessity and cruelty. We’ve also seen this happen before, in the cases of bumblebees being hooked on caffeine for sustainable crop production and cows getting VR goggles to produce more milk.

Regardless, with a long way to go, the outcome of this breakthrough study escalates us one step closer into its approval for human clinical trials—ultimately giving those who struggle with alcoholism another option to finally put the bottle down for good.

Scientists are toilet-training cows to combat climate change

It’s your fever dream but also a coveted way to tackle climate change. Collaborating with Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), a group of researchers have found a solution to reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock waste: toilet-training cows.

Farmed cattle are known for their notorious contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—producing roughly 66 to 88 pounds of faeces and 8 gallons of urine each day. When cows are kept outdoors, as in the case of New Zealand and Australia where they are free to roam and relieve themselves at their own leisure, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down into the soil. This results in the production of two toxic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

While nitrate from these urine patches bleeds into lakes, rivers and aquifers, nitrous oxide emits into the environment as a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The former pollutes water bodies and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and toxic algae while the latter accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, when cows are sheltered in barns—like in Europe and North America—the practice results in the production of yet another polluting gas: ammonia. This by-product is produced when the nitrogen from cow urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor. Confining cows in such spaces could also be detrimental to their wellbeing in general. On the quest to strike a balance between their personal health and our planet’s, scientists decided to test and dispel a common myth surrounding cattle.

In a study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, researchers proved that cows can be taught how to control their defecation or urination, just like human babies. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Doctor Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the FBN, in a press release. In their project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place using a procedure called ‘backward chaining’.

In phase one, a total of 16 calves were confined in a latrine pen and rewarded with an electrolyte mixture or crushed barley when they urinated. This established the pen as an ‘ideal’ place to excrete. The calves were then placed in an alley outside and rewarded for entering the pen and urinating in the same place. If they began excreting in the alley, they were discouraged with a ‘deterrent’. “We first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said in the press release. “We thought this would punish the animals, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

The calves were trained in this procedure—which the scientists have conveniently named “MooLoo training”—for 45 minutes every other day. After 15 days of training, 11 out of the 16 calves involved in the experiment were successfully “MooLoo trained.” Majority of them also learned the skill within 20 to 25 urinations—quicker than the time it usually takes to toilet train three to four year-old children.

“In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein summed up. However, scaling this method for large-scale application in the agricultural industry involves two main challenges, which the scientists are planning to focus on in the coming stages of the project. First up is the automatic detection of urination in the latrine pen to deliver treats without human intervention. Optimal locations and number of latrine pens are the next hurdle. The latter is a particularly challenging issue in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open paddocks rather than in barns.

“Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen,” the researchers wrote in a column for The Conversation. “And more needs to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in both indoor and outdoor farming contexts.” But what they do know for sure is that the MooLoo technique can significantly reduce the environmental impact of farmed cattle. “The more urine we can capture, the less we’ll need to reduce cattle numbers to meet emissions targets—and the less we’ll have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat from cattle,” they concluded.

Dinosaurs may have excreted their way into extinction but the odds of history repeating itself is finally at an all-time low.