As fancy as a $15 cocktail might seem, it contains the same basic ingredients that have been making us feel very good — and very bad — since ancient times.
Alcohol is one of the world’s most popular drugs, but it’s a natural substance, not a carefully concocted pharmaceutical. That means we have little control over its highs and lows.
But we can do better than that, according to British scientist David Nutt.
Nutt has been working on a synthetic form of alcohol for over a decade. His goal? To replicate the buzz of drinking alcohol while eliminating the hangovers and long-term health consequences that go with it.
“We know a lot about the brain science of alcohol. It's become very well-understood in the last 30 years,” Nutt told The Independent last month.
“So we know where the good effects of alcohol are mediated in the brain, and can mimic them. And by not touching the bad areas, we don't have the bad effects.”
Nutt calls the product “alcosynth.”
In 2010, he got a BBC correspondent tipsy off alcosynth in pill form.
He then partially reversed the effect with an injection of another proprietary compound, which acted as an antidote to drunkenness.
That version of alcosynth was a benzodiazepine, the class of drugs that includes Valium.
The scientist’s newest creation, according to The Independent, is outside the benzodiazepine family altogether.
The chemical compound is, in this early stage, a closely guarded secret, which makes it hard for outsiders to comment on it.
However, George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, believes Nutt probably has something very promising.
“Never discount Dr. Nutt,” Koob told Healthline. “He’s a very clever man.”
Earlier in his career, Nutt contributed to the early understanding of how the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) acts in the brain.
Koob thinks alcosynth likely takes advantage of that knowledge.
Alcohol doesn’t work directly on a specific receptor, like cocaine and opiates do. Instead, it “hangs out” nearby and changes the ability of receptors to respond to neurotransmitters like GABA.
Benzodiazepines work this way, too, which make their effects similar to alcohol. That’s why it’s dangerous to mix alcohol and Valium, for example.
Whatever Nutt has created, he probably thinks it is “better than the benzodiazepines in some way,” Koob said.
“Benzodiazepines can make you sleepy, can make you uncoordinated, can cause memory problems if doses are high. They do have some modest abuse potential. Alcohol does all those things, too, but has high abuse potential. And so, that’s our guess is that he is hypothesizing that his compounds will have all the good effects of alcohol but none of the bad effects.”
Alcosynth would also be ingested just as alcohol is typically ingested: at a bar, mixed into drinks.
“It will be there alongside the scotch and the gin, they'll dispense the alcosynth into your cocktail and then you'll have the pleasure without damaging your liver and your heart,” Nutt told The Independent.
Consequences of alcohol
Drinking takes a toll on the body.
Chronic drinkers are more likely to experience heart disease, cancer, impaired immune function, and, of course, liver disease, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Alcosynth wouldn’t ravage the body like alcohol does, Nutt says.
In fact, he claims it wouldn’t even produce a hangover because the compound doesn’t break down into acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol that is associated with hangover.
That could mean no more miserable mornings the night after indulging.
Many news articles have run with that headline: hangover-free booze.
But the science is still unclear as to what, exactly, causes hangovers.
It’s likely a combination of factors, including acetaldehyde buildup, dehydration, mini-withdrawal, and immune system response.
At any rate, Koob sees alcosynth as more likely to be medicinal than recreational by helping heavy drinkers to cut back.
Nutt, too, hopes that the product can be used as a way to help people with abuse disorders wean themselves off alcohol.
The future of alcosynth
Earlier this year, the Adam Smith Institute, a British libertarian think tank, published a report on alcosynth and other “sinnovations” that it claims are impeded by government red tape.
The report focused on alcosynth’s potential as a cessation tool, just as e-cigarettes have been touted as a healthier replacement for conventional cigarettes.
But like e-cigarettes, synthetic alcohol would likely get caught in a “regulatory dead zone,” the author, journalist Guy Bentley, wrote.
That’s possible. Alcosynth would probably have to undergo the extensive testing required of any new pharmaceutical, Koob told Healthline.
In the United States, that means approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which can take decades and cost millions of dollars.
The product might also draw scrutiny from other federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he said.
That explains why, although Nutt envisions a future where alcosynth could overtake conventional alcohol, he doesn’t see that happening before 2050.
Maybe that will delay a much-needed alternative to alcohol that could save lives. But it will also give us time to understand the new compound’s effects on our minds and bodies.
“Every time you perturb the brain there is some action in response to that perturbation,” Koob said. “There is no free ride in the brain.”