Imagine a typical heavy night out, followed by the head-ringing, retching regret of the next day. What if there was the option of pleasure without the pain? This is the promise that controversial neuropharmacologist Professor David Nutt hopes to fulfil, with recent news that he has developed possible ‘alcohol substitutes’ with none of the after-effects or toxicity of alcohol itself. Naturally, this could be a boon to students. No more staggering into a tutorial hungover (or still plain drunk), as well as the reassuring sense that you are no longer hammering your body when you drink.
Prof. Nutt points out that in our health-conscious age it is surprising we prefer to largely brush off alcohol’s harmful effects. Drinking heavily causes 2.5 million deaths worldwide each year, largely through systemic organ damage, but also by increasing incidences of violent or risky behaviour. Never mind the risk, alcohol shows no signs of losing popularity, as a glance at any British city centre past 9pm ably demonstrates.
An effective substitute would mimic effects of the widespread inhibitory ‘GABA’ neurotransmitter system in the brain, thereby dampening activity and causing relaxation. Alcohol also yields increased serotonin and dopamine levels, which give a short-term pleasurable buzz but possibly result in long-term addiction. There are multiple subsystems in the brain, so an alternative could manipulate these to give equivalent pleasurable effects without causing aggression, memory loss or addiction.
So, we have a seemingly elegant solution to the problem that alcohol causes both for individuals and societies. What’s the view of Nutt himself? “I have identified five compounds… [I] need to test them to see if people find the effects as pleasurable as alcohol. The challenge is to prepare the new drink in a fashion that makes it as tasty and appealing…in the form of a cocktail, so I foresee plenty of different flavours.” There will surely be no shortage of willing volunteers for experimentation – but concerns have been raised, not least that the professor could be tactically chasing headlines to gain funding.
A key point is that providing a ‘harmless’ alternative to alcohol, quickly reversed by an antidote, is a simplistic solution to our bingeing problem. “We should focus on what is going wrong in our drinking culture rather than swapping potentially one addictive substance for another.” So suggests Emily Robinson of the charity Alcohol Concern.
The next few years could prove fruitful for Prof. Nutt’s research (and our livers), but it’s safe to say that the alcohol industry’s input will be another matter altogether…
Does this appeal, or is fake booze a cop-out? Visit www.bangscience.org for related features.