Reports are spreading about a wonderful new alcohol substitute that gives you all the pleasantness of a boozy evening without a nasty hangover the day after.
According to UK’s The Independent, ‘alcosynth’, as it’s dubbed by creator Professor David Nutt, could completely replace regular alcohol by 2050, if we just give it a chance and some research dollars. But it’s not just about eliminating hangovers.
The costs of alcohol misuse in modern society are huge. About 3.3 million deaths worldwide were caused by alcohol in 2012, according to WHO data - not to mention other harmful outcomes such as fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-fuelled violence.
Nutt, chair of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has an illustrious career studying drug effects on the brain, their use in psychiatry, and serving as an advisor in the field of public policy on drug misuse.
Alcosynth isn’t new
Even if you’ve never heard of ‘alcosynth’ before, it’s actually not a brand new discovery - Nutt has been working on a replacement drug for alcohol for at least a decade.
"I have spent 20 years trying to reduce the harms of alcohol, and then about 10 years ago [..] we thought 'we'll never stop alcohol being toxic because it's intrinsically such,” he told The Guardian in 2014. “It causes cancer or liver disease, for example. So why don't we replace it with a safe drug?'”
The idea behind an alcohol-replacement drug is to target the same parts of the brain as alcohol to induce a pleasant buzz, but leave out the negative side-effects. In your brain, alcohol bind to GABA receptor, a molecule that responds to one of the most important chemicals in the nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric acid.
According to Nutt, at least some of the molecules he’s investigating as ‘alcosynth’ are derivatives of the well-known sedative benzodiazepine (which also targets GABA), but selectively changed to avoid withdrawals and addictiveness.
One of the main causes of hangovers is an overabundance of acetaldehyde - the chemical you get when the body breaks down ethanol. Acetaldehyde is thought to be up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol itself. Thus using a drug that doesn’t cause your liver to swim in this stuff could indeed mean avoiding hangovers altogether.
Furthermore, Nutt is also looking into a class of drugs that can reverse the effects of synthetic alcohol, effectively sobering you up to the point where you can safely drive home.
Still a while to go
“I think this would be a serious revolution in health benefits, just as the e-cigarette is going to revolutionise the smoking of tobacco,” Nutt told the BBC back in 2013. “I find it weird that we haven’t been talking about this before because it’s such an obvious target for health improvement.”
However, in order to achieve such a dramatic change, there’s need for serious research funding, not to mention the need for an overhaul of the regulatory framework that is currently in place for conventional alcohol. There’s also the liquor industry to be reckoned with, worth billions of dollars annually worldwide.
According to UK Department of Health, the idea is still “too much in its infancy at the moment”. Meanwhile Professor Nutt continues to look for funding to overhaul the world’s drinking culture as we know it.
"People want healthier drinks," he said. “The drinks industry knows that by 2050 alcohol will be gone."