Social factors have a tremendous influence on instances of heavy drinking and in turn impact public health. However, it is extremely difficult to assess whether this influence is only a cultural phenomenon or has biological underpinnings. Research in non-human primates demonstrates that the way individuals are brought up during early development affects their future predisposition for heavy drinking, and research in rats demonstrates that social isolation, crowding or low social ranking can lead to increased alcohol intake, while social defeat can decrease drinking. Neurotransmitter mechanisms contributing to these effects (i.e.
, serotonin, GABA, dopamine) have begun to be elucidated. However, these studies do not exclude the possibility that social effects on drinking occur through generalized stress responses to negative social environments. Alcohol intake can also be elevated in positive social situations, for example, in rats following an interaction with an intoxicated peer. Recent studies have also begun to adapt a new rodent species, the prairie vole, to study the role of social environment in alcohol drinking. Prairie voles demonstrate a high degree of social affiliation between individuals, and many of the neurochemical mechanisms involved in regulation of these social behaviors (for example, dopamine, central vasopressin and the corticotropin releasing factor system) are also known to be involved in regulation of alcohol intake. Naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist approved as a pharmacotherapy for alcoholic patients, has recently been shown to decrease both partner preference and alcohol preference in voles. These findings strongly suggest that mechanisms by which social factors influence drinking have biological roots, and can be studied using rapidly developing new animal models.