New Year’s Eve Talk

(January 7th, 2014) It’s a brand new year filled with lots of plans and expectations. The first few days are perfect to meet family and friends and talk a bit about everything. In case your relatives are a bit science-savvy, here are some interesting findings about booze and fireworks to entertain them.

First, drinking is good for you. Really. Two recent articles report on benefits of drinking alcohol (moderately, that is): improvement of spatial memory and as boost for your immune system.

In the first study, researchers from Reading University, UK, showed that (aged) mice invited to have a daily drink of Champagne for a period of six weeks showed improved spatial working memory compared to their sober counterparts. The secret behind bubblies’ brain boosting abilities are flavonoids and smaller phenolic acids like gallic acid or caffeic acid. These two components work their magic by modulating the expression of certain hippocampal and cortical proteins (e.g. brain-derived neurotrophic factor and cAMP response element-binding protein). These proteins are well-known to influence cell cycle regulation, signal transduction, cell death and neuroplasticity. The authors summarise: “Changes in spatial working memory induced by the Champagne supplementation are linked to the effects of absorbed phenolics on cytoskeletal proteins, neurotrophin expression, and the effects of alcohol on the regulation of apoptotic events in the hippocampus and cortex.” Cheers to that!

And there’s more! Research groups at the University of California-Riverside and the Oregon National Primate Research Center, USA, offered rhesus macaques a drink, a 4% ethanol cocktail, for several months. The twist: at the start of the experiment, the animals were vaccinated against small pox. A similarly vaccinated control group only had access to a sugary drink. "Like humans, rhesus macaques showed highly variable drinking behaviour," says Ilhem Messaoudi, who led the study. "Some animals drank large volumes of ethanol, while others drank in moderation."

And the moderately drinking monkeys were the ones to watch, they showed better recall vaccine responses than all other animals, drinking or not. "It seems that some of the benefits that we know of from moderate drinking might be related in some way to our immune system being boosted by that alcohol consumption," says Kathy Grant, senior author of the study. The researchers traced back the enhanced response to higher levels of antiviral cytokines and CD8 T cell differentiation.

Bottom line: moderate drinking may have some benefits but be careful. "If you have a family history of alcohol abuse, or are at risk, or have been an abuser in the past, we are not recommending you go out and drink to improve your immune system," warns Messaoudi. "But for the average person who has, say, a glass of wine with dinner, it does seem in general to improve health and cardiovascular function. And now we can add the immune system to that list."

Let’s switch to another New Year’s favourite, fireworks. Everybody loves them. Every human, that is. Animals, on the other hand, are less fond of our sparkling and noisy celebrations. In 2011, Dutch researchers reported on the “temporal and spatial scale of immediate response of birds to fireworks”. Corresponding author Judy Shamoun-Baranes, geo-ecologist at the University of Amsterdam, explains: “The massive use of fireworks in the Netherlands, which is so densely populated, causes an immediate panic response in thousands of birds that rest in lakes and rivers.”

Right after midnight, when the firework noise peaks, birds fly to heights of more than several hundred meters and remain there for about 45 minutes. The same is likely to happen wherever people welcome the New Year with bangers and rockets. “This is an example from only one area in the Netherlands, but if we scale up such a response then tens of thousands of birds, and maybe more, may be affected in the lowlands where water birds that breed in the Arctic come to spend a hopefully peaceful and safe winter. For example, our colleagues in Belgium have seen very similar responses,” Shamoun-Baranes tells us. The University of Amsterdam, together with the Royal Netherlands Air Force, put up a website where you can follow radar images of the massive flight response of thousands of birds on New Year’s Eve over De Bilt, near Utrecht.

While the big scare caused by fireworks might not be deadly to most birds, for some it could be. “If a bird is weak (if it had a difficult winter, for example, or is sick) or if the fireworks occur in concurrence with very bad weather so that birds become disoriented then our human celebrations might have consequences”, cautions Shamoun-Baranes. Therefore, she plans to do a more extensive monitoring of birds and their response to fireworks, also as part of a project funded by EU-COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) that seeks to develop an international network for continental scale monitoring of animal movement using radar technology.

With or without fireworks and champagne, the Lab Times team hopes that everyone had a great start to the new year and wishes a happy and successful 2014!

Karl Gruber

Photo: Fotolia/Patryk Kosmider

Last Changes: 02.18.2014