Saturday, February 25, 2017

“Alcosynth” - the Secret to Drinking Without Regret?

As Prohibition showed, taking booze away from the public is wildly unpopular with just about everyone but Bible-thumpers and bootleggers. But what if, instead of being banned, alcohol was simply replaced with something better? Something that makes you feel talkative and sociable without also making you throw up/fall down/feel hungover/get fat/make terrible decisions/get into fist fights or any one of the other things on the shockingly long list of downsides we all know alcohol has?

“Alcosynth” probably sounds too good to be true: A synthetic form of booze with all the fun parts of alcohol but none of its downsides. A world where a night out ends without a single tearful argument, and where not one person worries about how they’re going to deal with their 8 a.m. meeting because hangovers no longer exist. It’s a utopian ideal that for many is more important — and certainly more relevant — than colonizing Mars. It would be—for the first time in the history of a species that has been consuming alcohol for 10 million years (if you include our ape ancestors)—a night of drinking with no penalty the next day. Though it sounds like a fantasy, it is the actual goal of David Nutt, a British scientist who has been touting the virtues of so-called alcosynths since 2014.

Following his groundbreaking research into benzodiazepines (drugs similar to Valium) in the early 1980s, Nutt has lectured at Oxford University, headed up the psychopharmacology unit at Bristol University and been president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. He has also garnered a reputation for campaigning vigorously — and sometimes controversially — for changes to current drug laws, which he claims are interfering with the scientific community’s ability to sensibly study the effects of most psychoactive drugs. One such controversy — in which he published a study claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol — saw him dismissed from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In response, Nutt formed the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs alongside several fellow ACMD members who had resigned in protest.

We spoke with Nutt about his ongoing quest to convince a skeptical public that, with the right mix of targeted chemicals, there really is a safer alternative to alcohol.

In a 2010 study, you determined that alcohol was more harmful to society than either heroin or crack (although those were found to be more harmful at an individual level). How do you go about measuring something like that?

We developed a 16-point scale to work out all the different variables for the ways drugs can harm you: It runs from whether it can kill you when you first take it, like heroin, through to how much social damage and destruction it does. It turned out that with alcohol, there were nine harms to the user and seven harms to society — the social harms of alcohol are so enormous that it came out at number one. Alcohol is associated with over 50 percent of all domestic violence and almost all child abuse; vast amounts of health-care costs; and huge amounts of policing costs. That’s in British society, at least, although the study was replicated in Europe and they came to the same conclusion.

The bottom line is, I’ve worked in the field of alcohol for my whole professional life — I’ve worked on treatments for alcohol withdrawal, I’ve worked on anti-craving agents — and you can never truly get rid of the harms of alcohol, because it’s a toxic substance. We use it to kill bugs on the skin, you know? You wipe your skin with alcohol when you’re doing injections. Then [when you drink it] it’s metabolized to formaldehyde, which is the sort of thing you pickle dead sharks in. It’s always toxic and you can’t get around that.

You’ve proposed that we replace alcohol with something less harmful — what you’ve termed an “alcosynth.” How would such a substance work?Since you can’t get round [the problems that come with alcohol], what we need to do is find a way of replicating the good effects — things like relaxation and sociability, maybe a bit of animation. Over the years, enough people have studied the effects of alcohol on the brain that we’ve got a pretty good idea how to target just the good effects, but not the bad bits.

You’ve patented more than 90 potential alcosynth compounds — do any of them look promising?
Alcohol is a difficult drug to mimic, but we’ve got three or four good candidates. It’s not just about how they make you feel; you’ve also got to consider the cost of production and other variables. There are two compounds in particular that I’d be perfectly happy to raise some money for.

What’s the experience of being “drunk” on them like?

It’s just like alcohol! We tested it on people who’ve spent their whole lives in the alcohol industry and they can’t tell it apart. They say it’s just like being drunk, only you’re not quite as unsteady (which is something we intended — it was designed not to make you unsteady so people are less likely to fall into each other and start fights). I’ve used it a lot and it is like alcohol, only you don’t have a hangover, you don’t have gut ache, it doesn’t seem to cause aggression.

It has all sorts of benefits: It’s got a very clever design in the molecules so the peak effect flattens out, unlike alcohol, which never plateaus out. With alcohol, the more you drink, the more effects you get — it just keeps going until it kills you. With alcosynth, eight drinks is the same as four drinks — you won’t get any more damaged from it. What I want to do is get people drinking alcosynth so they can do what they always wanted to do — sit and talk to each other, have fun and chat each other up — without getting drunk, falling under the table and vomiting. With this stuff, four drinks would be all you’d need for a whole evening.

by Nick Leftly, MEL |  Read more:
Image: uncredited