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Is This the Beer of Tomorrow?

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What would you do if someone told you it was possible to get merrily drunk with none of the unsavory consequences? No hangovers, no unidentifiable party injuries, no “where-did-this-tattoo-come-from” screams the following morning? What if you also heard that there was a pill you could pop to sober you up quickly, giving you the option to drive home after a night at the bar, or at the very least, not pass out on the subway and end up in a place you can’t even pronounce?

Personally, my first reaction would be to drop my half-drunk beer, hug everyone within a half-mile radius while singing the “Hallelujah” chorus, and most importantly, demand an immediate trial run. The thought of a party-filled life without hangovers is about as close as I can get to imagining heaven.

Actually, this scenario isn’t such a far-off fantasy. Psychopharmacologist David Nutt of the University of Bristol in England says that drugs mimicking alcohol – but thankfully, lacking all the nasty side-effects – are, in fact, becoming a reality, at least in the laboratory.

But let’s back up a little.

When ingested, alcohol circulates through the body and enters the brain, where it affects the brain’s chemistry in a number of ways _ some better understood than others. It is known to latch onto a class of molecules called GABA-A receptors, of which there are a number of different types. When alcohol binds to them, it induces feelings of euphoria as well as memory loss, aggressive behavior, and nausea.

Alcohol also blocks other receptors called NMDA receptors, the net effect being a reduced sensitivity to pain and, again, memory loss. The night after I graduated from college, I broke my foot while (drunkenly) dancing with friends. Not only did I not notice the pain until the next morning – when more than my foot was aching – I still have no idea what I did to break it. That’s blocked NMDA receptors for you.

So alcohol is not, by any means, a perfect drug. Nevertheless, according to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than half of all Americans are alcohol consumers. So how close are we to making a new-and-improved alcohol, a B.E.E.R. 2.0?

Nutt says that in many ways, it’s already here. It is possible to design compounds called partial agonists that mimic alcohol in the good ways but not in the bad. Researchers can make a cocktail of drugs that block NMDA receptors, latch onto the “good” GABA-A receptors, and avoid the “bad” GABA-A receptors.

Two alcohol-mimicking partial agonists, bretazenil and pagoclone, originally designed as anti-anxiety drugs, already exist. They have an added bonus, too: There’s an antidote available that can quickly reverse the effects of the drugs – allowing you to come home after a few drinks without passing out and drooling all over the sofa.

But Nutt points out that even though drugs like bretazenil and pagoclone are already a medical reality, they might not become commercially available anytime soon. For one thing, the FDA only approves drugs that have therapeutic value, e.g. that are used to treat a problem or condition. While partial agonists might be useful for treating addictions, including alcoholism, “I don’t think there’s any government agency that would review a company’s drug application for a recreational use,” says FDA spokesperson Laura Alvey in an e-mail.

Nutt also points out that for many politicians, the phasing out of alcohol might present a conflict of interest. He writes in an article in next month’s issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology that when it comes to introducing alternatives, “There is little political will, as many politicians have financial interests in companies that profit from alcohol.”

As evidence for this, he points out the UK’s recent legislation to introduce open-all-hours drinking, which he says “flies in the face of common sense, proven harm reduction policies, as well as the Cabinet Office’s own report on alcohol.”

But let’s pretend for a moment that these drugs will, in fact, become available. Certainly, this is an exciting possibility. Not only would we avoid a lot of unwanted side-effects, but partial agonists would also save lives by preventing overdoses and drunk-driving accidents. But, in my mind, there is also something very scary about the idea of such “designer drugs” – I’m remembering the “engineered paradise” of Brave New World, where zombie-people pop Soma like candy: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”

Certainly, I am jumping ahead of myself here, and I don’t mean to put a damper on what could be, well, a whole lot of fun. But there are definitely some bigger issues to think about here.

Dr. David King, head of the Office of Science and Technology in the UK, agrees. “We are on the verge of developments which could possibly move us into a world where
we could take a drug to help us learn, think faster, relax, sleep more efficiently or
even subtly alter our mood to match that of our friends,” he says in a 2005 Office of Science and Technology report. “This would have implications for individuals, and could lead to a fundamental change in the way we behave as a society.”

Indeed, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if society had a selection of designer drugs at its fingertips. We’ve been told that partial agonists, drugs that keep us happy and serene, can easily be designed. It’s not such a stretch to imagine drugs that could do a lot of other things to us, too. I just hope that when the world of designer drugs becomes a reality, it is kept out of the wrong hands – and that we aren’t all too “drunk” to notice what is going on.