Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall, and hangovers follow Friday nights with the bouldering inevitability of a runaway freight train, except louder and fuelled by ill-advised Long Island Iced Teas. It’s an unfair succession of events that plagues mankind, to be repeated ad infinitum. But hey, that’s just the circle of life… or something.
That is unless David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacology professor at Imperial College London and former government drugs adviser, has his way. Earlier this year, he revealed two new drugs that mimic the sensation of being drunk without the regrettable side effects, and reduce the impact of alcohol. The eternal question of whether to have one more glass of wine, even though it is Sunday evening and you haven’t washed your good shirt for tomorrow, may have just been solved.
The first of Nutt’s wonder drugs is “alscosynth,” a non-toxic inebriant drink that induces the same I-reeeeally-luuuurve-you-man effects of alcohol, but carries no risk of hangover, aggression, loss of control or any of the general mess that comes from hammering your liver with a toxic compound.
“It targets the parts of the brain that give the good effects of alcohol but not those that give the bad effects,” explains Nutt, who hopes the alcohol substitute will be marketed as a companion to regular alcoholic drinks, and be relatively cheap to buy. However, there are concerns about the safety of alcosynth, a benzodiazepine derivative and a substance in the same family as Valium, which some experts say can be harder to withdraw from than heroin.
Nutt maintains alcosynth does not have the same withdrawal symptoms as Valium, explaining that it “doesn’t interact with those receptors that cause addiction to benzodiazepines.” When asked for an opinion on the risks of alcosynth if marketed to the general public, a spokesperson from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said: “Unfortunately, we just don’t know enough about how it works to give informed comment.”
It’s not the first time Nutt’s work has been met with question. In 2009, the neuropsychopharmacologist was criticised for suggesting that ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding. Nutt’s second drug is described as a “chaperone,” which can reduce the effects of alcohol on the body. If the pill is taken before drinking, it is impossible to become drunk “to the point of incapacitation,” i.e. drunk enough to think hassling the DJ to play “Single Ladies” for “all my girls” is a good idea. If made widely available, the pill could be used as a quick way to sober up after a night out and may even reduce the risk of drink driving, although Nutt notes that the price would need to be set high to avoid abuse.
But Nutt’s new drugs aren’t just enablers for midweek partying. The professor also stresses alcosynth’s potential as an alcohol addiction treatment. “I would hope alcoholism would disappear as people stopped using alcohol,” he says. “But before that, alcoholics might find alcosynth helps them reduce their drinking.”
While the NHS condones medications such as acamprosate—a drug that affects the levels of gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) in the brain—to prevent relapse in people who have successfully achieved abstinence from alcohol, there is debate over the treatment of alcohol addiction with drugs. “There is a role for prescription drugs in helping people who are alcohol dependant or regularly drinking to excess,” says Jackie Ballard, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern. “However, the main problem facing the UK is the culture in which booze is advertised everywhere, sold cheaply almost anywhere at any time, and where people often find it difficult to resist peer pressure to drink alcohol.”
Indeed, many see stricter advertising and retail laws, not medication, as a way to reduce alcohol abuse. Last month, the Irish government announced it would set a minimum price for alcohol, something Health Minister Leo Varadkar described as “a response to the fact that the majority of Irish adults drink too much and many drink very dangerously.”
Whether wonder drug or wrong direction, it’s still early days for alcosynth and the chaperone pill. While Nutt has applied for 85 new chemical compounds in the alcosynth and chaperone families to be licensed to DrugsScience and the Beckley Foundation, legal and human trial costs for the drugs are expected to reach £1 million, and Nutt has yet to secure a backer. But maybe that’s a good thing. Do we really want to experience a synthesised state of sub-drunkness? Should we be able to live hedonistic, Tequila-soaked existences with zero consequences for any of our alcoholic excess?
Actually, that sounds pretty good.
By Phoebe Hurst - Munchies/March 2, 2015
Art: Detroit Hangover by Mack Galixtar/fineart.com