Sunday, October 2, 2011

OK, So What's With the Hype About the "Drunk Protector" Drug?

Recently there have been some breathless reports about an experiment conducted by Mark Hutchinson, a scientist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Hutchinson targeted a novel receptor, TLR4, that is involved in modulating the immune system. It is possible that this receptor is involved in some of the symptoms of drunkenness, like imbalance and slurred speech. Hutchinson gave alcohol to mice who were either normal mice ("wild type") or who had been genetically modified to lack genes encoding two different receptors involved in the TLR4 cascade. They also used a medication that blocked opioid receptors, naltrexone as a comparison group. In addition, they conducted some studies on cell cultures rather than live animals. One of the findings was that mice without these genes had shorter durations of imbalance on two difference measures when given alcohol, compared to mice who were genetically normal. This is what led to the media hype. So does this mean that we are close to a pill that allows people to drink and not get drunk, as media reports suggest? No, of course not. First, this is a very complex experiment that could only be understood by someone steeped in the neurobiology of brain transmission and alcohol's effects on various types of receptors and cells. Second, it has no current or near-term impact. It's meaning only be discerned by other neuroscientists, and it has not even been replicated by another investigator, let alone been translated into a treatment. So, don't get excited, college students! That said, the immune system is something of a trendy thing right now in just about every malady known to humankind, from diabetes to heart disease, stroke to depression. There's no question it is involved in and affected by alcohol consumption. Some effects might be positive, such as a reduced risk of diabetes or Alzheimer's Disease in moderate drinkers, and some might be negative, such liver fibrosis and dysfunctional brain neurotransmission. Here is the website for the original report, for those of you who are undaunted by lots of scientific jargon: MW

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