Imagine a drug that allows you to drink as much alcohol as you like, wake up without a hangover and never have to worry about developing a dependency.
A new anti-alcohol intoxication medication has been identified by researchers who published their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The treatment is an extract from the seeds of the Japanese Raisin Tree Hovenia dulcis, an ancient herbal remedy. The key ingredient in the seeds is the compound dihydromyricetin, or DHM, which appears to block the effects of alcohol on the brain.
Hovenia dulcis, or Japanese Raisin Tree
Scientists at UCLA gave a group of rats the "human equivalent" of 15 to 20 beers during a two-hour binge. We'll call this group the Rat Blackout Brigade. These rats not only passed out cold, but also lost the reflex mechanism that allows them to flip over when placed on their backs.
Another group of rats got tanked up with the same amount of alcohol, except this group was also given a shot of DHM. While the DHM rats eventually passed out as well, it took them longer to become intoxicated and their stupor lasted only 15 minutes. These rats also regained their reflexes quickly. In other words, the study concluded that DHM counteracts intoxication and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. And most significantly, DHM was found to reduce voluntary alcohol consumption. (After a two-week bender, the rats did not become dependent).
Hovenia dulcis has been used as a folk remedy for centuries to treat a wide range of alcohol-induced ailments, including liver injuries. In fact, the Raisin Tree was recorded in the world's first pharmacopoeia, Tang Ben Cao. It is said that during the Song Dynasty the poet Su Dongpo, who had a propensity for excessive alcohol consumption, used zhi ju zi, or Raisin Tree extract, to help him hold his liquor.
Never hungover: Su Dongpo
The UCLA study now gives scientific credibility to a treatment that has been used for over 500 years. According to the UCLA researchers, Associate Professor Jing Liang, M.D., Ph.D., and Professor Richard W. Olsen, Ph.D., DHM inhibits alcohol's effect on the brain's GABA(A) receptors:
Dihydromyricetin inhibited alcohol's effect on the brain's GABA(A) receptors, specific sites targeted by chemicals from brain cells. Alcohol normally enhances the GABA(A) receptors' influence in slowing brain cell activity, reducing the ability to communicate and increasing sleepiness — common symptoms of drunkenness.
Most crucially, according to Liang, "when you drink alcohol with DHM, you never become addicted."
Of Mice and Men
Animals such as rats have been used in numerous alcohol studies in recent years to model the drinking behavior of humans as well as to learn how brain cells are affected by alcohol. For instance, a previous study has shown that nicotine helps to sober up rats, helping to explain other studies that have found human smokers tend to drink more to get intoxicated. Since the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine -- both from the intake of alcohol and nicotine -- numbs pleasure, smokers drink more alcohol to get a buzz.
What's the Significance?
The next stage of the research will involve human clinical trials, the researchers said. According to the World Health Organization alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are the most common form of substance abuse, and affect 76 million people worldwide, resulting in 2.5 million deaths each year. And yet, the impact of alcohol reaches far beyond the physical health of a drinker. In Australia, for instance, out of a total population of 21 million, 10.5 million people have been negatively impacted by the alcohol consumption of a stranger.
Imagine how medicine could mitigate this negative social impact. It could not only mean better health for drinkers, but also fewer crimes, less unsafe sex and domestic abuse. The list goes on and on.
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