Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Should We Cheer a Sobriety Pill?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Should We Cheer a Sobriety Pill?

Article excerpt

Willpower is probably starting to ebb from that New Year's resolution to cut down on alcohol. Why? Because you're fighting your natural inclinations: intoxication is a basic human drive. That's why children so enjoy being giddy after spinning around or rolling down a grassy bank. For adults, such pleasures are invariably guilty ones associated with being irresponsible. The reaction to scientists' invention of the "sobriety pill", therefore, was fascinating.

To some, the properties of dihydromyricetin, which can make drunk animals sober within a few minutes of ingestion, seem like a godsend. The pill is about to enter human trials but this has brought out some people's inner puritan. Surely, they claim, those who get high shouldn't be allowed to avoid the crash to earth.

What's often missed is that it is entirely normal to get high-Human beings have always sought intoxication, and always will. Nor is it just us. Tasmanian wallabies have been caught repeatedly raiding fields of poppies grown to produce pharmaceutical opium (they're not difficult to catch -once they have ingested enough opium, they run around in crazed circles). Malaysian shrews go mad for the fermented nectar of the bertam palm. Elephants happily get tipsy on fermented fruit.

The desire to get high is a by-product of evolutionary success. The pleasure involved is created by brain circuits that encourage us to do things that are essential to survival - sex and eating, for example.

In research published last year, this was extended to include less obvious tasks such as seeking out vital minerals: allowing salt-deprived rats to drink salty water activated the same gratification circuits that are hard at work when cocaine and heroin addicts have just sated their cravings.

Alcohol gives pleasure through a slightly different brain chemistry from narcotics. …

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