Researchers have proposed several different methods for removing some or all of alcohol's harmful health effects, while maintaining its pleasurable ones. These methods range from lowering the amount of alcohol in beverages to creating a substance that would change the effects of alcohol on the brain.
Lower-alcohol, non-alcoholic beers and other types of low-alcohol beverages are already available, but they haven't really caught on because many people don't like the taste. And aside from pregnant women and others who can't drink alcohol for health reasons, many people pass on low-alcohol beverages because they are seeking the "buzz" that only alcohol can give them. Reducing the alcohol content is the easiest way to make alcohol less toxic to the body. Creating a safer alternative that still produces the same "buzz" reaction is more difficult, but researchers say it's not impossible.
Scientists have already created drugs that act like alcohol on the brain. Alcoholics who are trying to quit can take a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. These drugs are also prescribed for anxiety, panic disorders, insomnia, muscle spasms and some forms of epilepsy (the commonly-prescribed drugs Xanax, Valium and Klonopin are all benzodiazepines). Like alcohol, these drugs are full GABA receptor agonists, meaning that they enhance the effects of the brain chemical GABA. But taking benzodiazepines can cause significant side effects, including dizziness, weakness and upset stomachs, and people who use these drugs can become dependent on them.
David Nutt from the University of Bristol proposes making an alcohol alternative that contains a GABA-A partial agonist. It would bind to a GABA-A receptor, but only partially activate it, triggering a weaker response. Because a partial agonist takes the place of a true agonist, it blocks the agonist from latching on to the receptor and causing the full effect.
In theory, an alcohol alternative could contain a chemical agent that would bind only to the receptors that affect the positive effects of drinking (relaxation, pleasure), but not to the receptors that affect the negative effects (nausea, memory loss). In other words, if you drink it, you'd still get a "buzz" without having some or all of the harmful effects of alcohol on your body. And when the body breaks down this alcohol alternative, it would not produce acetaldehyde, the toxic substance that leads to hangovers and other ill effects of drinking. And, if people drink too much of this alcohol alternative, they could take the benzodiazepine antidote flumazenil (brand name Annexate), which would instantly help them sober up so they could drive home. Flumazenil is sometimes used in hospital emergency rooms to awaken patients who are unconscious for no apparent reason.
Get a better understanding of GABA receptors and alcohol alternative research on the next page.