Experiments Could Herald "Sober Pill"

By Jeff Forester 10/05/11

Aussie scientists have identified the immune cells in the brain that cause slurring and staggering when you drink.

Blame the immune system.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide, Australia, have found that immune cells in the brain may dictate how people respond to alcohol. Dr. Mark Hutchinson, a fellow with the University's School of Medical Sciences, said that this immune response lies behind some specific drunken behaviors, such as slurred speech and the staggers. Researchers precisely blocked the "toll-like" receptor 4—part of the immune system in the brain—in laboratory mice using drugs. They also succeeded in genetically altering the unwitting rodents to lack the functions of the selected receptors. "The results showed that blocking this part of the immune system, either with the drug or genetically, reduced the effects of alcohol," said Dr. Hutchinson. He believes similar treatment could work in humans: "This work has significant implications for our understanding of the way alcohol affects us, as it is both an immunological and neuronal response. Such a shift in mindset has significant implications for identifying individuals who may have bad outcomes after consuming alcohol, and it could lead to a way of detecting people who are at greater risk of developing brain damage after long-term drinking." Researchers are hopeful they may be able to develop a "sober pill" that would mitigate the negative affects of alcohol, and negate many of the worst consequences of drunkeness, like staggering across a dance floor, or hitting on the boss's wife at the Christmas party.

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.