Oxazepam is an anxiolytic muscle relaxant. Like its more popular cousins diazepam and temazepam it is usually prescribed to alleviate sleepless worries and anxious nerves.

Similar to those pharmaceuticals it can also be acquired under the counter by party-leavers intent on descent from their excessive narcotic stimulation.

It is hypothesised that all our drug use, both the state-sponsored and illicit, ends up in our sewers, and so polluting our rivers with a toxic cocktail of mood altering substance.

What effect might this have on river dwelling creatures?

This month in the acclaimed journal Science, Swedish researchers from Umeå University report that Dilute Concentrations of a Psychiatric Drug (oxazepam) Alter Behavior of Fish from Natural Populations.

In place of a simple comparison of fish behaviour in oxazepam contaminated rivers and ‘clean’ rivers, the researchers instead concocted this story that might capture imaginations as they captured the poor petrified perch and floated them in oxazepam laced waters.

What happens when fish are swum through this drug—enough even to sedate a single-gloved pop star?

Russian River tule perch

Russian River tule perch

Not that it really matters what happens, especially as it is entirely expected that something might happen, but yes … something happened.

The perch became antisocial and developed an insatiable appetite … they became the bong smoking stoners of the fish world.

So it seems that despite having evolutionarily escaped the primordial waters we are not so exclusive and dissimilar to our fishy legless friends. Gill-bearing aquatics have a heart and circulatory system. Check. They have a brain and nervous system. Check. They have eyes, a digestive tract, and fins for arms. Check check check. Should we really be surprised if they respond to a psychoactive drug, a drug they are swum through?

Some might think if a psychoactive drug can affect the pea brain of the perch as it does a speedball truck driver anxious from excessive road side antics, or a bored housewife fearful of the return of the pool boy …  then perhaps we humans are not so special as we believe.

But such reading interprets too much, for that is not the point of pointless science in Science.

While the research does nothing to explain why Swedes are so anxious, it possibly tells us less about what it is supposed to tell us about, and nothing we actually want to know about.

When it comes to science in news, coolness trumps data, and so story beats fact.

Stoned perch? Awesome!

Informative data-rich science? Zzzzzz


Follow me. To the sewer outlet!

Instead of exposing experimental fish to equivalent concentrations of oxazepam as found in Swedish rivers, the researchers used triple the concentration so they could generate fish with equivalent muscle tissue concentrations in just a week.

No matter how many times you state in a body of text that something is an ‘environmental’ concentration, if it is triple what is found in nature, then … it is not.

Ask your local heroin addict if he were to accidentally inject a triple hit, would it matter? Instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner just eat all three at once … same number of calories … feel the same?

While this method saved the scientists from waiting more than a week in order to achieve the relevant tissue concentration, it opens the door for a rather obvious criticism that any peer reviewer or editor worth their paper should pick upon.

Like many pharmaceuticals, benzodiazepines are easily tolerisable.

Achieving a muscle tissue concentration of oxazepam in experimental fish in the scale of one week, and then concluding on the behavioural defects of those fish, neglects the effects of drug tolerance which might protect wild river fish from suffering those same bahavioural defects. This is especially the case as the experimental fish were exposed to triple the concentration of oxazepam (strangely labelled ‘low’ concentration) as their riverly brethren.

Oxazepam addict

Stoned perch

As for the poor perch exposed to the ‘high’ concentration, 1000-fold that of contaminated rivers … does it really matter? Apparently the ‘boldness’ of these fish was affected. They became more care-free in their interpretation of the potential for danger as they explored new areas of their environment much faster than their tee-totalling compadres.

But I’m certain you could add anything in so much as 1000-fold excess. Too much water would kill a fish. 

So while it may be fascinating that oxazepam has an effect upon fish this work tells us little about the health of our river systems. It might seem straightforward enough to hypothesise that our river fish are in a terrible state of health with all that oxazepam in their gills, but I have an hypothesis of my own …

given that cocaine and methamphetamine are stimulants also found in sewer and river water perhaps there is a happy equilibrium in the river ecosystem. Michael Jackson existed for many years in such equilibrium, fluctuating seamlessly between highs and lows.

Any GP worth his stethoscope can tell you drugs interact.

Swedish perch might need oxazepam in their water to counteract all the stimulants unwittingly sucked from excremental Swedish intestinal waters.

Like the ‘nutrients’ in water seeded from the digestive systems of plankton or algae or any other living organism, oxazepam might now be an integral component of a finely balanced narcotic ecosystem beneath the rapids.

‘Nutritionist perch‘ might advocate oxazepam as part of a healthy diet. Who are we humans to take that away from their riverine community? Yet others of the perch family, ‘scientist perch‘ might label the proposed health effects of oxazepam to be just the spouting of homeopathic charlatans – how many parts per million they say?

Of course my hypothesis might be rubbish. Without the proper data in support, a hypothesis is only that. It is the beginning. It is the grant application, not the Science publication.

Whoa! That some good fish ... shif ... tish ... shi ...

Jaundice from oxazepam overdose

As fascinating as it is that fish get high off oxazepam, this study tells us nothing about the effect of excremental oxazepam on our river ecosystems.

Maybe I’m wrong. If such experiments are worthy of Science and science … you’ll next see me down the local aquarium. Then I’m off to my corner crack dealer.

While I’m at it, I might as well roll my dog in heroin and freak my cat out by bathing him in LSD again. He usually demonstrates his dissatisfaction at this by tearing about my apartment ripping everything to bloody shreds between rabid hisses. But in the name of Science, it is an effect … it must mean something.

So yes, just as the title of the research states, “Dilute Concentrations of a Psychiatric Drug Alter Behavior of Fish from Natural Populations.”

… but does it alter the behaviour of fish in natural populations?

Dilute? Really?

What about just A Psychiatric Drug Alters Behaviour of Fish? Would the editors at Science publish that?

For more Science Satire Serpentry go HOME

photo credit: Omar Eduardo PacificKlaus via photopin cc


One thought on “Fishy Science

  1. As you point out, Science Serpent, the issues are complex, rather more complex that the experiment you cite which, apparently, led to some very simplistic conclusions. Interested in our waterways and our fish populations, I am very concerned about the ways in which we are polluting not only rivers and lakes but also seas and oceans. The vast waterways are vulnerable and fish stocks are not illimitable. All the stuff that washes into the systems – from farmlands, sewer systems, streets and gutters makes a mockery of anything being “natural” or “pure” any more. I was concerned about Michael Jackson and I am concerned about those perch. Keep on writing!

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