From secret agents to drunk rats

There’s a spy film (I can’t remember which one) with a famous scene where the secret agent and his enemy sit down for drinks. The agent secretly slips a pill into his mouth to counter the effects of the alcoholic beverages they both proceed to consume. Throughout the rest of the night, the spy retains all his mental faculties, knowing that meanwhile his enemy will succumb to impaired judgement, delayed reflexes and slurred speech. This is all caused by the alcohol slowing down the enemy’s brain by binding onto ‘depressant’ receptors, called GABAA receptors, making them more active – in turn, slowing down the brain.

Not to mention the secondary bodily actions alcohol has on the drunken enemy. Alcohol limits the production and release of the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin, meaning that important salts and fluids are excreted by the kidneys in his urine. The alcohol irritates the stomach lining so much that his brain concludes that the stomach’s contents must be harmful thus causing a feeling of nausea. The enemy’s sleep is also affected. As a compensatory reaction to the alcohol, his body produces glutamine; a stimulant which prevents deep restful sleep and can even trigger tremors, anxiety, restlessness and high blood pressure the next day. All in all, the next morning the enemy will experience the dreaded post-intoxication syndrome – also known as a hangover.

So what is the agent’s ‘magic’ pill that protected him from this dreaded sequence of events? Today the internet is full of suggestions, many herbal or vitamin-based. Not surprisingly, there is a huge market for ‘miracle’ hangover cures. Yet hardly any claim to be able to curb the primary effects of alcohol – feeling ‘drunk’. Recently, however, scientists at the University of California have tested a natural substance called DHM (taken from an Asian tree) on rats. The rats were given a dose of alcohol equivalent to a binge of 15-20 pints of beer. The rats that weren’t given the DHM lost their ‘flipping’ reflex (their ability to stand up after being pushed over) for over an hour. In contrast, the rats given DHM before the alcohol only lost their ‘flipping’ reflex for around 15 minutes. In other words, DHM made the rats extremely tolerant to alcohol.

Still, perhaps the most important finding from this study was DHM’s longer-term effects on alcohol addiction. Rats, just like humans, can become addicted to alcohol. If the alcohol was mixed with DHM, however, the rats drank much less than their untreated counterparts, possibly because it binds to the same GABA receptors that alcohol does but without the same ‘depressant’ effects. The researchers plan to test DHM on humans, with a view to hopefully using it to treat alcoholism.

Post by: Natasha Bray

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