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Why Are All Wine Studies Done on Mice and Alcoholics?

Scientists are supposed to be really smart folks, aren't they? Then why, in their valiant attempts to understand the effects (good and bad) of wine on people, do they spend their time giving wine mostly to transgenic mice and serious alcoholics? The mice can't appreciate it and the alcoholics won't care what they're drinking.

You'd think there would be legions of college students around the world falling all over themselves to be research subjects on studies that involved consuming three to five glasses of red wine per week on a regular basis. Especially compared to the alternative of rubbing lotions on patches of skin checking to see which cause rashes, or popping pills every week that might be sugar or might produce anal leakage. Heck, these folks probably wouldn't even need to be paid, especially if you served them some decent wine.

Sadly, the medical establishment continues to play with their rats and to provide guidance useful only to chronic alcoholics, like the stunning findings for this week, that suggest that if you're going to be an alcoholic, drinking beer results in less long term brain degeneration than drinking wine. Specifically, alcoholics (especially women) whose drink of choice was wine showed more shrinkage of their hippocampus than alcoholics whose drink of choice was beer.

Tastes great, less filling. And less brain shrinkage, too!

Of course, that's not the way the news media of the world reported it. Probably because alcoholics aren't a really huge segment of their readership. In order to make it more interesting for the rest of the world the newsroom's finest came up with such headlines as:

"Wine is worse for brain than beer, scientists reveal in blow for women drinkers"

"Beer better for brain, wine a worry"

"Wine damages brain more than beer: researchers"

Scary. I've had this weird throbbing sensation in my head for the last couple of days. I'm sure it's my hippocampus shrinking. Apparently this area of the brain is heavily involved in short and long-term memory, which means that wine lovers have a perfect excuse now for forgetting anything.

Comments (8)

Jason Ohmann wrote:
03.17.08 at 6:51 AM

I remember reading an article a few years ago where scientists isolated the phenolic compounds in wine, concentrated them thousands of times, then fed them to (surprise) rats. So the rats got tumors after 5 years. Now, the lead scientist is rambling on about how wine isn't really good for you and about how it's a risk factor and even one drink could be deadly, etc. Then at the end of the article he finally admits that the concentrations of those compounds was thousands of times that what's found in wine even if you don't consider the scale of the rat. So, he basically magnified the ingestion of phenolic compounds by a factor of thousands and then got up into his bully pulpit.

I bring this story up because both in and outside of the world of wine, scientists compromise or sometimes downright whore out this sense of "objectivity" that they claim to have cornered. They do this because they are under immense strain to publish, and publish something groundbreaking and breathtaking. Even though there's been lots of great science behind it, the past couple decades have seen an exciting movement to prove the health benefits of wine. So where there is a Goliath, there is a David that thinks he can get noticed if he knocks him down. Scientific objectivity? You only need a little bit to jam your agenda down the throats of the people. Scientists like this think their lab coats are politicians' and that they have some sort of social obligation to come to certain conclusions when in fact nothing could be more of a corruption of the scientific ideal.

winenegress wrote:
03.17.08 at 5:27 PM

One of the passions of people who work at daily newspapers is essentially junk science with all scientific stories boiling down to variations on "viewing with alarm," "pointing with pride," or "new hope" or "no hope." By the way, who paid for this study? Anheuser-Busch?

Arthur wrote:
03.17.08 at 11:54 PM

Whether or not beer producers sponsored this publication and the work which supports it, the fact that wine contains 3 times the ethanol of beer (and a nice dose of biogenic amines which beer does not) still remains. Ethanol is very effective at withering both the liver and the brain. Long term impact of biogenic amines is not clear but a deleterious one has not been disproved.

Kat wrote:
03.18.08 at 3:59 PM

I suppose what bothers me is not only their methodology (ingest enough of anything and it will kill you), but their inclination towards being alarmist and attempting to focus their attentions on women specifically. There was another article recently talking about young women who save their calories up so they can go out drinking at night. Instead of paying attention to the obsession these women have with their bodies and their desires to be thin, the article offered up the suggestion that they mix low-calorie drinks (like diet soda) with hard alcohol. This in place of wine.

I put on more weight when I was drinking straight hard liquor every night than now, when I have a couple glasses of wine before/with/after dinner.

A number of the health problems attributed to alcohol are either due to the alcoholic nature of the subject, or due to the subjects other problems, such as over-eating or destroying their metabolisms with severe dieting. To sound like a broken record, moderation is key.

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.19.08 at 10:31 AM

What I find more silly than associating mice and alcoholic's physiology to mine is the way the media reports these things. They always use statistics to exaggerate risk. Which sounds worse? "The chance of getting bowel cancer is 10% higher if you drink wine" or "four additional people per thousand will be at risk of getting bowel cancer if they drink wine, but 25 fewer individuals will have heart attacks." Sort of takes the "news" out of the news.

Scaring people off wine isn't the worst manipulation. The worst is when a LDL lowering cholesterol drug is prescribed to 800 people to prevent one heart attack... resulting in 799 healthy individuals buying a drug (and risking side effects) all based on a report exaggerated to the public with a 25% risk reduction claim.

I propose we have warning labels on all reports on "scientific findings."

Arthur wrote:
03.19.08 at 2:10 PM


You have a valid point. So many who wave research findings around to support their arguments do not engage in critical analysis of the raw results and the way that is interpreted/presented by the study authors (your cholesterol drug example being a very good one of the latter).

It may be philosophical to say so, but questions (or the way they are asked) dictate (or at least frame) the answer. To end on a trite note: the devil is in the details – but who among the general public has time for them?

03.19.08 at 7:45 PM

As a wine blogger, wine enthusiast and research scientist (4th year PhD student in Neurophysiology) I have been closely following this story. I study the hippocampus - each day I spend hours and hours recording from neurons in the rat brain. Also, I am currently working on a book discussing the physiology of wine.

That said, I will address a few points brought up here.

Regarding the initial statements by Alder about science:
Preclinical models serve a very important role in understanding physiology, pathophysiology and behavior. Without rat/mouse models, we would know very little about how the human body works. We can’t go around getting people drunk, then dissecting them and studying their physiology on the cellular level. All clinical research begins at the cultured cell/rodent level, then works its way up to primates, then humans. It’s very difficult to get approval for any studies on humans, especially those involving alcohol or drugs.

Comment 1: “scientists compromise or sometimes downright whore out this sense of "objectivity" that they claim to have cornered” AND “Scientists like this think their lab coats are politicians' and that they have some sort of social obligation to come to certain conclusions when in fact nothing could be more of a corruption of the scientific ideal”

Scientists spend hundreds of hours developing research studies in the most objective ways possible. A very important part of this type of research that you allude to (increasing the dose of resveratrol or other phenolics) is determining the ED50 (50% of effective dose) and LD50 (50% of lethal dose). By using this large doses science can better see the effects of the compounds to draw conclusions as to what role they may play in smaller concentrations (where effects are not noticeable). And a big part of science in this country is getting grant funding – with a trillion dollar war and the economy down, it’s very difficult to keep a lab running on NIH funding. I don’t know of any scientists that come up with conclusions due to a social obligation or any other obligation – it is common (and required) to propose ideas based on what we observe, regardless of the outcome. This is scientific method.

Statement 2:
“the fact that wine contains 3 times the ethanol of beer (and a nice dose of biogenic amines which beer does not) still remains”

If you read the study, you would know this was addressed. In Table two, they report “Ethanol Consumption Over Lifttime” of each of the groups. It is here we see that the wine group actually consumed the LEAST amount of alcohol…that said, they report the effects of an atrophied hippocampus is a result of other factors (for comparison, the liquor group consumed nearly twice as much alcohol over lifetime).

“but their inclination towards being alarmist and attempting to focus their attentions on women specifically”

Statement 3: The media is most guilty of being alarmist- they are the ones who take the interpretation of the scientific research and misconstrue the conclusions. And until the 1970’s, no research in this country (or in the world for that matter) used female rats, mice or other offspring. Recently the importance of gender research has been demonstrated by scientists all over the world (read: men and women are different physiologically). Women should be glad that science has finally awoken to the need for both male and female based studies.

“So many who wave research findings around to support their arguments do not engage in critical analysis of the raw results”

Have any of you “engaged in critical analysis of the raw results?” I don’t mean this as an attack, but I bet I’m the only one here who has read the study in it’s entirity. I agree that the media often reports on science based on interviews or headlines – data and conclusions are taken out of context and the public is misinformed. The point of blame here is on the media- we scientists can’t control how our research is interpreted once it leaves our lab – we can only offer well designed studies and our interpretations of the results. The raw data is there for you to read and interpret as you wish. Most people don’t do this though and rely on the media- we can’t do both!

Finally – I don’t think it was a well conducted study nor did it represent the population for this reason:

Percentage of women in each group:
Beer: 21%
Wine: 67%
Spirits: 22%
Control: 47%

Women have smaller brains and smaller hippocampus in general (I study the hippocampus). This study grouped the men and women data which will give you large standard error, and in this case, questionable findings. This is common in MRI research and can be very misleading.
The study in Table 2 even acknowledges that GENDER has the biggest reported effect on hippocampal volume...yet they group the men/women data.

If this is incoherent, filled with misspelling or grammar errors, please forgive me - I just got home from 13 hours in the lab and am just opening a bottle of Rioja!

Jack wrote:
03.24.08 at 5:49 AM

Mr. Mohammadi,

What a good analysis. I don't think it would be any better had you been awake!

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