Imagine a pill that could instantly sober you up no matter how much you've had to drink, or a hangover cure that worked minutes after swallowing it. Hardened drinkers rejoice: researchers are about to begin human trials on an "alcohol antidote" that may soon offer a cure to alcoholism, reports New Scientist.
The drug is a chemical called dihydromyricetin, or DHM, and is derived from a Chinese variety of the oriental raisin tree, which has been used for at least 500 years in China as an effective hangover cure. So far the extract has only been tested on boozing rats, but with promising results.
"DHM will reduce the degree of drunkenness for the amount of alcohol drunk and will definitely reduce the hangover symptoms," said Jing Liang, lead researcher in the study. "In time, it will reduce [an alcoholic's] desire for alcohol."
Liang first tested how well DHM alleviated drunken rats' clumsiness and loss of coordination by measuring how long it took them to right themselves after being laid on their backs. Rats were injected with an alcohol equivalent of a human drinking 15 to 20 beers in two hours to ensure that they were sufficiently wasted. As one would expect, it took the rats about 70 minutes just to get back up on their feet. After a milligram of DHM (per kilogram of rat body weight) was added to the mixture, however, the rats were able to right themselves in just five minutes.
The rats were next tested within a maze to see how well DHM neutralized hangover symptoms. Rats with a hangover typically react by cowering away in the corners of a maze, seemingly lacking motivation to seek an endpoint. But once those rats were given an appropriate dosage of DHM, their inquisitiveness was revived and they reacted just as rats that were given no alcohol at all.
Lastly, Liang tested whether DHM could cure alcohol addiction in rats. Boozy rodents were given a choice of drinking a sweetened solution of alcohol or sweetened water. Over a period of three months with DHM treatment, rats drank only a quarter the amount of alcohol that rats given no treatment drank.
Provided that the drug works as effectively in humans as it does in rats, DHM could be a breakthrough in the fight against alcoholism. But some researchers are concerned that it could eventually lead to more drinking rather than less. For instance, development of a similar compound called Ro15-4513 was abandoned several years ago due in part to such concerns.
"There was a lot of philosophical worry that an 'alcohol antidote' would entice people to consume alcohol and then count on being able to terminate the intoxicating effects on demand," said Markus Heilig, clinical director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
It's certainly easy to imagine how such a drug could be abused. Drinkers could become intoxicated, then take a pill when it comes time to drive themselves home. Hangovers would also no longer be a deterrent to imbibing. But for those struggling to overcome an alcohol addiction — not to mention the 2.5 million people who are estimated to die every year due to alcoholism — the drug could be a godsend and well worth the risks.