Jefford on Monday: Nutt Slammer, Anyone?

I am not a Trekkie, but I respect scholarship, so apologies to any wine-loving Star Trek fans who consider the following detail elementary. Drinks served on Starfleet vessels and bases were made with synthehol: a substance which had the same beneficial effects as alcohol, but none of its harmful ones. Is the idea about as credible as bio-mimetic gel or emergency transporter armbands?

Star Trek drinking red wine

Red wine toasting scene from the film Star Trek - Nemesis

Rather more so, I learned last Monday, when David Nutt, the Edmond J Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, lamented (on ‘Today’, the UK’s leading radio news programme) the fact that he was unable to get funding to develop the synthetic alcohol substitutes he and his colleagues had developed. He claimed to have personally taken such substances, and said they worked well.

Their chemistry, as you might expect, is fiercely complex. Ethanol (alcohol) enhances the effects of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system. GABA acts in the brain to bring a sense of calm and wellbeing, and to lower levels of stress and anxiety, by interacting with GABA-A receptors on postsynaptic neurons.

Professor Nutt’s synthetic alcohol substitute, a benzodiazepine, apparently duplicates this effect enhancement (as drugs like Valium and other benzodiazepines already do) but without negative consequences. Alcohol hits multiple receptors; Nutt’s carefully tailored ‘benzos’ would simply hit the desired, beneficial receptors. The Alpha-2 and Alpha-3 receptors are those which make you feel relaxed and happy, whereas Alpha-1 receptors make you wobble and Alpha-5 receptors cause memory loss. There would be no progression from mild to chronic inebriation, either, since there are no effects at higher doses. No hangover; no addiction; no liver damage. The effects can be swiftly reversed when it’s time to drive home. It will be “100 times safer” than alcohol, Nutt has claimed.

Nutt has sometimes been described as an anti-alcohol campaigner. What he has in fact done is apply scientific rigour to statistical data in his field – which happens to be one about which society at large has fixed opinions.  Those opinions are often driven by more emotion than reason.  

Naturally, when Nutt suggested that horse-riding (which involves one serious adverse event in around 350 exposures) was riskier than taking ecstasy (which involved one serious adverse event in around 10,000 exposures), he was not out to court popularity. His view is that illicit drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they cause, and to support this case he and his colleagues have developed an analysis based on nine parameters of harm. This furthermore distinguishes between harm to the individual taking the drug, and harm to the society caused by those taking it. When you compound the two criteria, alcohol emerges as more harmful than heroin (see the chart here).

The data might, of course, look very different if heroin and crack cocaine were legally on sale, like bottles of Côtes du Rhône-Villages, in a variety of tempting, tasty and attractively labelled forms in every supermarket. It also fails to take account of the nature of the drug in question. It’s relatively easy for most users to consume alcohol moderately with no harm either to themselves or society at large, but much harder for heroin users to do this (if it’s possible at all). The minority who cannot consume alcohol moderately skew the statistics for this, our most widely used and trusted drug.

All the same, I hope Nutt does find funding for his synthetic alcohol substitute, since it would be intriguing to compare it to a glass or two of wine. In the radio interview, he admitted that popping a synthehol pill didn’t quite have the social or sensual allure of sharing a bottle with friends, and that drinkable alternatives were being examined, though I hope none of these are called (as he once apparently suggested) the ‘Nutt Slammer’.  

The idea isn’t bonkers; it’s a good idea to chew gum rather than over-eat, and to muck about with an e-cigarette rather than inhale the tar stuffed into a pack of fags. Whether it will ever replace the pleasure of opening, with your four best friends, a lovingly matured, long-cherished bottle of wine crafted by one of the world’s finest producers, from one of its greatest terroirs and in one of its most propitious vintages, though, I doubt. Wine, as we all know (despite it being so hard to prove), is more than just alcohol.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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