This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Like many of us, I’ve been drinking more during the pandemic. Whether it’s an extra beer with dinner or that glass of wine that turns into a bottle, drinking helps me wind down and switch off from the news.
But I could do without the morning-after headaches and regret. If only there were a drink that got you tipsy without the hangover …
In an underground lab in the English countryside, a top brain scientist has been working on that very thing: synthetic alcohol. David Nutt has been testing this new creation on himself.
“You feel a bit more relaxed, and you start to get a bit chattier and then your friends around the table say, ‘Shut up, Nutt, you’re just saying too much.’ And then you know it’s definitely working!”
Nutt, currently professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, was the UK government’s drugs adviser in the late 2000s. But he was fired in 2009 for claiming that alcohol is more dangerous than ecstasy or LSD. The following year, he published a study showing that booze is more harmful to society than heroin or crack cocaine.
“Alcohol has always been one of my biggest research interests,” Nutt said. “As a doctor, you’re always confronted by the problems of alcohol. Every time you go on the ward, you see someone who’s been damaged by alcohol. So I’ve always wanted to give young people an alternative to this addictive, toxic substance, which in the end could — well, we know will — kill 3 ½ million people a year prematurely.”
The alternative he’s working on now is a molecular compound called Alcarelle. The plan is for Alcarelle to be used in various kinds of drinks—instead of alcohol. According to Nutt, the compound will allow you to feel the good effects of booze, without the hangover.
“The science of Alcarelle is based on an understanding, a deep understanding of the science of alcohol,” Nutt said. “Over the last 50 years, neuroscience has made major progress in understanding what alcohol does in the brain.”
When we drink, alcohol affects a neurotransmitter in our brains. The booze binds to certain receptors, and that makes us feel buzzed, or confident, or sleepy.
“And that means that you can potentially — and this is where the real skill and the science has come in — target subtypes of that receptor to get the beneficial effects of alcohol, and avoid the subtypes which give you the negative effects, like excessive intoxication, like dependence, like withdrawal, etc.,” Nutt said.
For the past 10 years, Nutt and his team have been developing and testing compounds that target extremely specific brain receptors to get a desired response. You’ll feel relaxed, chatty, even less anxious — but not reckless.
“Alcohol is the great social drug,” Nutt said. “So what we are targeting is for people to lose their inhibitions around being sociable, but we don’t want them to lose their self-control.”
That’s the thing about Alcarelle: You cannot get drunk on it. The team is designing the molecule so that the effect plateaus: It’ll be like you’ve had one or two glasses of wine.
And what about this promise of a hangover-free Monday? First, you’ll only consume a tiny amount of the compound — much less than alcohol. Second, when we drink booze, our livers transform it into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, which leads to hangovers. That shouldn’t happen with Alcarelle.
“Alcarelle is specifically targeted to have no effects on the body,” Nutt said. “We are trying to eliminate all interactions with the liver or the kidneys or the gut.”
David Orren, Alcarelle’s managing director, was initially skeptical about Nutt’s plans for synthetic alcohol.
“It was only when I began to read about the negative impact, the damage that’s done [by alcohol],” Orren said. “People need an alternative. Celebrating over a drink is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. But at the moment, when we go to a social environment … the choice is to either abstain, or to do what everyone else does, which is damaging.”
Ah, but will it work?
Not everyone sees the potential of an alternative to alcohol, however.
“I don’t think the premise that we can fully separate the positive and negative effects of a synthetic substance on the brain can be fully supported by what we know about brain function, alcohol and addiction,” said Sarah Zemore, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group, a Public Health Institute nonprofit based in California.
Zemore is not convinced that Alcarelle will work. “They’re targeting sociability and relaxation, but how do you do that without targeting disinhibition? I can’t imagine how you could achieve those effects without disinhibiting a person. And so if that happens, then people are prone to make risky and poor decisions just as they do with alcohol. So they may be more likely to engage in unsafe behaviors, unsafe sex, violence, and criminal activity, or behaviors that are simply dangerous.”
Would people prefer a drink with Alcarelle instead of a couple of beers? You might miss the flavor of your favorite lager or Merlot, but would the tradeoffs be worth it?
I got a few friends together for a socially distanced happy hour to find out.
“Obviously, alcohol always has such a detrimental effect that you kind of pay for a long period of time, days, weeks after, depending on how big a party it was,” said Adam Daniels. “But if you can mimic the same effects and kind of take the edge off, I think that’s a very interesting idea.
But not all my friends were as enthusiastic.
“Well, if you’re not really losing control and you’re not really getting that heady kind of thing, are you really getting drunk?” asked Gerard Simpson. “Is it the same thing? I mean, I would try it, I’ll try anything. But would it ever be a replacement? I don’t know.”
Christine Frost said she falls in the category of people who just want to get a bit tipsy but nothing more. “If it could just knock that edge off reality at the moment, I think it’s great.”
We’re a few years away from being able to order a drink with Alcarelle in it. The compound first needs to go through lots of rigorous safety testing, and there are several hurdles to clear.
I’m definitely intrigued by synthetic alcohol. But personally, I can’t shake the idea that there’s some kind of catch. We go too hard on the margaritas, we get hungover; we eat too many carbs, we put on weight. It seems like everything pleasurable has a consequence. And maybe that’s to keep us in check. Because isn’t part of the allure of alcohol the risk of losing control? The temptation of one more drink at the bar … the sense that anything might happen?
Alcarelle is a more mellow option: a gentle buzz, without the health damage. For casual drinkers like me, who just want to kick back with a red wine and not pay for it the next day, it’s an exciting prospect.