Guinan served up Synthehol in Ten Forward on Star Trek: TNG

Researchers are looking at using benzodiazepines to replace alcohol without its ill side-effects. The most commonly known member of the family is diazepam, pictured here, which acts as the chief ingredient in Valium.  (Source: 3D Chem)

Questions remain, however, about ill-effects that diazepam and many other members of the benzodiazepine family have.
Research echoes Star Trek "synthehol" a non-addictive space-age alcohol substitute

Ever wanted to imbibe a spirit and let the rush and buzz sweep over you, and then not have to worry about acting like a drunken fool or waking up the next day with a killer headache?  Such fantasies have long been actualized in the world of science-fiction, most notably in the Star Trek franchise, where characters indulge in Synthehol, a next generation alcohol-substitute that gives the buzz of drinking without its ill-side effects.

Perhaps inspired by that fictional science, researchers at the Imperial College London are seeking to make a real world Synthehol-like beverage for guilt-free enjoyment.  The research is led by Professor David Nutt, considered by most to be Britain's top drugs expert.  Professor Nutt is a somewhat controversial figure who was recently canned from a government advisory position due to his comments on cannabis and ecstasy.

Professor Nutt's team is focusing on chemicals similar to Valium that work on the same nerves as alcohol, giving a "buzzed" feeling of wellbeing and relaxation.  The selected candidate could be quickly switched off by ingesting a chemical counter-agent, allowing partiers to safely drive home.  The novel drug also is being designed not to affect the mood centers of the brain which alcohol incidentally triggers.  This accidental triggering is believed to be the major source of alcohol addiction, so in theory, the new alcohol substitute could be non-addicting (according to the researchers), or at least less so.

The researchers are looking at thousands of benzodiazepines, a class of chemicals consisting of fused carbon and nitrogen rings that act on neurotransmitters.  Diazepam, the most well known member of the family, is the chief ingredient in Valium.

Like alcohol, the synthetic spirit is being designed to be tasteless and colorless, though it will likely lack the characteristic "burn" that alcohol creates when ingested.  Professor Nutt believes that the beer, wine and spirits industry could eventually embrace the substance.  He says that this could have a profound effect on society, eliminating the hundreds of millions that suffer the ill effects of intoxication and alcohol addiction worldwide.  Alcohol use and abuse is not only linked to a variety of injuries and medical afflictions, but also to a large percentage of the crimes committed worldwide.

Professor Nutt says that he can personally attest to the safety and efficacy of "benzos".  He states, "I’ve been in experiments where I’ve taken benzo. One minute I was sedated and nearly asleep, five minutes later I was giving a lecture. No one’s ever tried targeting this before, possibly because it will be so hard to get it past the regulators. Most of the benzos are controlled under the Medicines Act [in Britain]. The law gives a privileged position to alcohol, which has been around for 3,000 years. But why not use advances in pharmacology to find something safer and better?"

Despite this early optimism, significant questions remain.  "Benzos" like valium have been linked to cognitive impairments and paradoxical effects such as aggression or behavioral disinhibition occasionally occur among users.  While they don't addict like alcohol, they have been shown to induce tolerance, physical dependence and upon cessation of use, a withdrawal syndrome.  There's also concern for the potential for teratogenicity (causation of birth defects) and increased risks when benzos are consumed with other drugs.

Nonetheless, you can't fault Professor Nutt and his team for trying to create a next generation alcohol substitute.  That goal is ambitious and would surely be enough to make even Quark, "The Synthehol King", excited, if he existed in the real world.

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