Science | Nutt calls for an alcoholic alternative

Alcohol’s consumption of health care and policing resources has caused the former chair of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt, to request greater funding and investigation into ‘synthol’, a pharmaceutical improvement on ethanol.

Alcohol is an excessively toxic compound to biological systems and should it have been discovered today the world would have implemented a blanket ban under our current food and pharmaceutical regulations. Associated to more deaths than AIDS and malaria annually, innumerable criminal acts, the spread of disease and unplanned pregnancies, our dependency on alcohol tears at our social fabric. Consumed all over the world and with such negative effects, it is perplexing that the only efforts to reduce consumption are through increase pricing and limiting access.

Alcohol’s effects on the human body has been documented in detail and is a known agonist of neurotransmitter GABA receptors mimicking the chemical. GABA is an inhibitory compound within the adult brain; alcohol’s ability to enhance the natural activity of GABA depress the central nervous system, invoking the desired effects of relaxation and sociability. Conversely, alcohol is a multifactorial psychoactive chemical causing side effects of aggression, hallucinations and dependency through other modes. Alcoholic alternatives are not new and some are already available on the market. A class of drugs called benzodiazepines, already mimic alcohol’s effects and are prescribed to wean alcoholics off their dependency or for those that suffer from anxiety, panic and insomnia (Valium being one of these).

Professor Nutt is renewing the calling for an influx of investment to develop these drugs and to tailor their effects on the body and psyche, limiting toxicity and harm. No longer may we wallow in a drunken stupour to be struck by a hangover the next day. A synthetic approach to alcohol enables the construction of an antidote to follow with it. Such an antidote could be designed and prescribed, mobbing up or breaking down the chemical and allowing the consumer to function as their sober self. Professor Nutt, having already tested two of the sample compounds on himself, described the effect of one as relaxing and sleepily inebriating, having taken the antidote and lectured to his class minutes after.

Five compounds have been identified and require scientific evaluation to test if the desired effects are implemented. The greatest difficulty and challenge for the team is to formulate a drug that can be marketed on taste and appeal over currently desired flavours and fashions. Nutt’s team envision an alternative cocktail-like drink to be produced in the foreseeable future.

Currently very little interest has been shown from breweries and distilleries in developing such an alternative. The benefits of such a drug would limit the addictiveness and detriment to the health of the liver and brain, potentially saving the NHS millions. In parallel with the reduced toxicity of synthol, social issues of violence, uninhibited behaviour and self-harm associated with alcoholic consumption could be addressed by the removal of such side effects aiding the police force and cost to the tax payer.


Henry Beach

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