Lileks: Mating mysteries are unveiled at U

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2012 - 7:52 PM

Thanks to vital scientific research at the University of Minnesota, we know now that dieting females may, in some cases, prefer food to sex. They also tend to stuff food in their cheeks until they bulge out and bury it under the fluff for later.

Female hamsters, that is.

Sorry. Guess that's important.

Animal rights group IDA -- "In Defense of Animals" -- has released its list of "Ten Most Preposterous Animal Experiments," and a U of M hamster study was No. 7. If you're curious about the competition, "Rats Find Miles Davis is Better With Cocaine" was No. 2. The Albany (N.Y.) Medical College played music to sober rats and found that they seemed to like Beethoven more than Miles. When they gave the rats cocaine, however, the rats went for Miles. Put on little dark glasses and smoked tiny cigarettes, too. Adorable.

It's useful information, and not just because we now know that Beethoven is your best defense against rodents coking up. Man! That's from Squaresville! Sure, you had your suspicions, but now you know.

And right ... about ... here is the spot where some scientists are annoyed with me. These experiments are useful for understanding how cocaine affects the brain, what sort of neurological alchemy is taking place. Eventually we will come up with a treatment that breaks cocaine addiction by using the opposite of Miles Davis-style sound waves. There's promising research in that field; clinical studies show that recordings of the Vienna Boys Choir singing ABBA songs reduce the desire for cocaine, if not life itself. But more research is needed.

I get that. I'm not some yahoo afraid a' book learnin' 'cause man ain't just supposed to know some things. Like, sunspots. They want to spend money to look at the spots on the sun? How do we know they're not on the scientist's glasses?

Things that sound impractical to the layman actually may have practical results down the road. Yay, research; yay, science.

For example: One of the 10 experiments studied the effects of meth on the offspring of mice. If the study discovered that meth-mice moms raised super-genius baby mice that were walking around on their hind legs after a week and correcting people's erroneous Shakespeare quotations after a month, that would be good to know. Especially if you busted a meth lab and the guy said he was doing it on orders from a 6-foot-tall talking mouse who wore pants and spoke three languages. Today, we'd think he was imagining things. And the mouse goes free.

So there's value in these things, but I'm still a bit confused about the need to identify the outward parameters of a dieting hamster's sex drive.

As the IDA put it: "Scientists at Lehigh University and the University of Minnesota found that putting hamsters on a diet had no significant impact on their abilities to perform or enjoy sexual intercourse, although they appeared less motivated to initiate it."

This means they can quantify the extent to which a hamster enjoys sex. Meaning someone already got a grant to figure that one out.

"Female hamsters who had been fed 75 percent of what they would normally eat for 8-11 days tended to spend more time with food and less time with male hamsters when given a choice between them. They also hoarded more food -- big surprise."

As usual, googling the subject led to actual facts, which makes it harder to paint it as a caricature of wacky eggheads wasting taxpayer money.

Hate when that happens.

The study actually looks at the role of estrogens. Starve a lady hamster, and she'll work harder to get food until the chemicals that trigger reproductive urges reach the level where she stops eating and thinks hello, sailor.

This makes for healthier litters, but also leads to arguments about who's doing the shopping. It also seems rather obvious; if you asked me if hungry hamsters would skip dinner for a roll in the cedar shavings, I'd say no, because they don't have Cosmo magazine telling them they should.

But there's an analogue to human female physiology, as well as an emerging relationship between a particular peptide and dopamine activity, which is the wheee-ha! chemical that gives you a sense of reward. It also affects obesity and behavioral choices during ovulation.

So it's not a case of the U getting a pot of money, then assembling an experiment out of words pulled at random from a paper sack. I'm not furious that they're putting hamsters on diets. I'm furious that they haven't spent grant money to see what happens when you dump cocaine in mosquito breeding grounds. Maybe they can't sit still long enough to bite. Maybe you can dispel them with Mozart.

Summer's coming. Someone please get on this.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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