Why booze makes us tipsy

Human beings have been using and abusing alcohol for a very long time: roughly 10,000 years, give or take a long weekend.

Human beings have been using and abusing alcohol for a very long time: roughly 10,000 years, give or take a long weekend.

The effects of drinking too much of the stuff have been known for every one of those 10,000 years (although individuals somehow seem to forget them within a remarkably short time frame).

For decades, scientists have been trying to understand the mechanism behind the reduced muscle co-ordination and sedative effects of alcohol. The assumption has been that alcohol acts on the brain’s neurons, but nobody could figure out exactly how.

A new study indicates that may be because they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Not only that, the study hints that it might be possible to create drugs that could be used to treat chronic alcohol dependence — or even to counter the short-term effects of drinking too much.

The study, out of Australia (a where people have been known to enjoy an occasional drink while throwing another shrimp on the barbie), indicates that these effects may not arise in the brain at all: instead, improbably, they may be caused by the way alcohol acts on the immune system.

The study focuses, as so many studies do, on mice.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide genetically engineered mice that are able to “hold their liquor” by deactivating something called the “Toll-like receptor 4,” or TLR-4.

TLR-4 is a member of a family of receptors that induce inflammation, one of the body’s main lines of defense against infection. TLR-4 was first identified in fruit flies, and is known to be present on immune-defence white blood cells in the bloodstream. It is also present on glial cells in the brain.

“Glial” comes from the Greek word for “glue,” and for a long time glial cells were seen as little more than the glue that held the more important neurons together.

But in fact, glial cells make up around 90 per cent of the cells in the brain and play many important roles in brain function—including protecting the brain against infection.

It appears that alcohol activates the TLR-4 receptor, causing the glial cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus to send out an inflammation signal: essentially, alcohol acts on the brain just like an infection would, and sedation and unsteadiness are the results.

The evidence? The mice genetically engineered so that TLR-4 was inactive were resistant to the behavioral effects of alcohol. Not only did they refrain from getting into bar fights with mice twice their size, they were able to stay perched on a rotating log longer and were sedated for a much shorter time than normal drunken mice. (You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever before typed the phrase “normal drunken mice.”)

Next, the researchers treated normal mice with a drug called (+)-naloxone, which blocks TLR-4. Sure enough, the drug also reduced the effects of alcohol, halving the duration of sedation and shortening the recovery time for loss of balance.

So, does that mean you’ll someday be able to take a pill that blocks TLR-4 and then head out for an overindulgent evening without fear of consequences?

Um, no. The study showed that it might be possible to reduce the severity and duration of alcohol’s effects: not eliminate them. Also, there are some effects of alcohol people actually want, and blocking TLR4 might actually block the pleasurable effects, too, so it would be unlikely to be popular with drinkers.

But this drug, or others to be developed that could be taken by mouth (the particular drug used in the study has to be injected, and in any event no one knows yet if it is safe for use by people, as opposed to mice) could play a valuable role in the emergency treatment of people suffering from an alcohol overdose.

Further, it seems likely that individual differences in TLR4 could account for individual differences in the effects of alcohol, which could give a means of determining how susceptible a particular individual is to its effects: perhaps someday your doctor will be able to tell you exactly how much alcohol you can enjoy without unpleasantness ensuing, or if you should avoid it altogether.

All I know is that if this research someday leads to a reduction in drunken karaoke, it will have made the world a better place for us all.

Edward Willett is a Regina freelance writer. Email comments or questions to ewillett@sasktel.net. Visit Ed on the web at www.edwardwillett.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Glen Carritt organized a United We Roll Canada convoy around May 2019 that travelled in 2019. An independent review said he breached council code of conduct rules multiple times. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Former Innisfail town councillor breached code of conduct many times, says review

Consultants say 29 of 36 alleged breaches by Glen Carritt had merit

Members of the Red Deer RCMP downtown patrol monitor for drug activity and property crimes. (Advocate file photo).
Two peace officers are training to join Red Deer’s downtown police patrol unit

This “integrated” unit will be the first in Alberta

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

A homeless shelter was promised Red Deer to help the city deal with downtown issues. The city and province finally released a signed agreement on what the facility will offer, a year after a $7 million commitment was made for the project by the province. (Advocate file photo).
City and province take next step in bringing a 24/7 shelter to Red Deer

It will include a detox and counselling services

Meteor spotted over Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 22, 2021 by several, who took to social media to share their surveillance camera captures. (@KixxAxe/Twitter)
VIDEO: Fireball meteor streaks across sky, spotted by early-morning risers in Alberta, B.C.

Videos of the quick streak of light flashing across the sky before 6:30 a.m. MST

Calgary Flames goaltender David Rittich (33) makes a save on Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Jimmy Vesey (26) as Flames' Christopher Tanev (8) and Joakim Nordstrom (20) defend during first-period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, February 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘Misunderstood’ Nylander ties game late, scores winner as Leafs beat Flames 2-1 in OT

‘Misunderstood’ Nylander ties game late, scores winner as Leafs beat Flames 2-1 in OT

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson yells to her sweepers at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Young Quebec team in the hunt to join Einarson, Homan in Hearts’ championship round

Young Quebec team in the hunt to join Einarson, Homan in Hearts’ championship round

A crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Woods suffered leg injuries in the one-car accident and was undergoing surgery, authorities and his manager said. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Golf without Woods? Battered leg brings it closer to reality

Golf without Woods? Battered leg brings it closer to reality

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien looks towards the ice as his team takes on the Ottawa Senators during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. The Canadiens have fired head coach Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Montreal Canadiens fire head coach Claude Julien, associate coach Kirk Muller

Montreal Canadiens fire head coach Claude Julien, associate coach Kirk Muller

Canada midfielder Sophie Schmidt (13) attempts a shot on goal during the first half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match against Argentina, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Phelan M. Ebenhack
Canadian women exit SheBelieves Cup on losing note, blanked 2-0 by Brazil

Canadian women exit SheBelieves Cup on losing note, blanked 2-0 by Brazil

Supporters pray outside court in Stony Plain, Alta., on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, as a trial date was set for Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church. He is charged with holding Sunday services in violation of Alberta's COVID-19 rules and with breaking conditions of his bail release. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Trial date for jailed Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders

Trial date for jailed Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Jason Nixon, government house leader and environment minister, after Nixon is sworn into office in Edmonton on April 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta eyes recall legislation, focuses on COVID-19 aid in spring sitting

Alberta eyes recall legislation, focuses on COVID-19 aid in spring sitting

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie attends a a news conference in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, February 28, 2019. The CFL faces more challenges in its 2021 return than it did last year when it was forced to cancel its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
CFL will have to appease more levels of government to get 2021 protocols approved

CFL will have to appease more levels of government to get 2021 protocols approved

Most Read