Getting drunk, but without the side effects?

The Pav may soon be serving up a synthetic alternative to alcohol

Oscar Wilde, perhaps the most famous of Trinity’s alumni, once remarked: “Alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, may produce all the effects of drunkenness.” Perhaps this isn’t Wilde’s wittiest, or most captivating quote, but it is accurate nevertheless. Without a doubt, alcohol will make you drunk, if you drink enough of it. There was once a time when sceptics of this fact could test this out themselves in two bars on campus. Alas, the Buttery Bar closed for the final time in 2006; nowadays, the Pavilion Bar, or “Pav”, is Trinity’s primary destination for inebriation.

Putting Wilde’s glaringly obvious observation aside, we might ask ourselves some deeper questions about alcohol. What is alcohol, and why does it make us drunk? Why, after a night drinking, do we feel so ill the next morning? Why is alcohol harmful to our health? And can science provide an alternative which can mimic the positive aspects of alcohol, while avoiding the negatives?

“Alcohol can have powerful effects on mood and behaviour; its effect on GABA neurotransmission may make us less anxious and shy.”

The effects of the substance referred to colloquially as alcohol is due to the chemical ethanol. Ethanol is produced naturally through the fermentation of sugars by yeasts and has been used by humans for thousands of years. Besides ethanol’s use in alcoholic beverages, it is also used as a clean-burning fuel and as a solvent in laboratories and in industry. Medically, ethanol is used widely as an antiseptic and disinfectant. In the past, its applications were wider still. Before the advent of general anaesthetics, ethanol was used to sedate patients for surgery. Indeed, Hippocrates, the famous Ancient Greek physician, is said to have prescribed wine for all manner of ailments, even to women during childbirth. Hippocrates considered alcohol to be an integral part of a healthy diet, saying that “wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and for the ailing man”.

So, how does alcohol make us tipsy? Our brains use chemicals called neurotransmitters to transmit the signals which control our thought processes, behaviours, and emotions. Some neurotransmitters are excitatory, and others are inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters cause an increase in electrical signals in the brain, while inhibitory neurotransmitters cause a decrease. Ethanol has well-documented effects on both the primary excitatory and primary inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain, glutamate and GABA respectively. Ethanol enhances the effects of GABA, therefore causing more inhibition of electrical signals in the brain. At the same time, ethanol reduces the excitatory effects of glutamate; this also serves to decrease electrical signalling in the brain. These two actions combine to inhibit the ability of our brains to think clearly and coordinate movements. This is the science behind the slurred speech, clumsiness, and poor decisions associated with drunkenness.

“Scientists may soon produce a synthetic version of alcohol which could allow Pav patrons to imbibe to their heart’s content – without enduring the consequences the morning after.”

Alcohol can have powerful effects on mood and behaviour. Its effect on GABA neurotransmission may make us less anxious and shy. Furthermore, alcohol increases levels of dopamine, which is responsible for the sensations of euphoria and pleasure when drinking. While alcohol can act as a relaxant and social lubricant when taken in appropriate doses, it can also have unquestionably negative effects. This has been understood since biblical times: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks” (Isaiah 5:11). Alcohol inhibits the release of vasopressin, causing excessive urination and dehydration. Our body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance which can cause cell and tissue damage. This helps explain why hangovers occur, and also some of the more long-term harmful effects of alcohol, such as liver damage and cancer.

Why bother understanding the science behind alcohol at all? Despite the potentially boring discussion of the ins and outs of alcohol effects, understanding how it works could help us  engineer a new kind of night out. Scientists may soon produce a synthetic version of alcohol which could allow Pav patrons to imbibe to their heart’s content, without enduring the consequences the morning after.

“Alcarelle selectively binds to different subtypes of GABA receptor, boosting those responsible for making us tipsy.”

Professor David Nutt is an English pharmacologist intent on revolutionising our approach to alcohol. He wants to bring a synthetic version of alcohol to the market. This will mimic the good effects, while avoiding the bad ones. Speaking with The Guardian, Nutt remarked: “We know where in the brain alcohol has its ‘good’ effects and ‘bad’ effects, and what particular receptors mediate that – GABA, glutamate, and other ones, such as serotonin and dopamine. The effects of alcohol are complicated but (…) you can target the parts of the brain you want to target.” After decades studying GABA and other neurotransmitters, Nutt believes he has found a suitable candidate: Alcarelle. While ethanol can bind to any GABA receptor in the brain, Alcarelle selectively binds to different subtypes of GABA receptor, boosting those responsible for making us tipsy, while avoiding others associated with the negative effects of alcohol. Synthetic alcohol will also feature a “peak effect”, meaning that at a certain point, ingesting more Alcarelle will not make you any more intoxicated. Unlike ethanol, which is broken down by the body into toxic acetaldehyde, Alcarelle will have a safer breakdown process, avoiding hangover symptoms the next day, and the harmful long-term effects of alcohol. Proving the safety of Alcarelle will be key to getting it onto the market. Speaking to the Irish Examiner, David Orren, Alcarelle’s managing director, explained: “What we need to now demonstrate is that the compounds are also safe, and that involves a series of trials and testing.” Orren expects Alcarelle to be ready for the market five years from now.

Oscar Wilde’s assertion has certainly weathered the test of time. Alcohol, and hangovers, have been an unwavering facet of the human experience since biblical times. However, this experience may change for the better, thanks to science. Hangovers and the harmful effects of alcohol may soon be a thing of the past, and they won’t be missed.