Professor David Nutt is a renowned scientist whose research career has focused on the brain, addiction, anxiety, and sleep. In this interview, first published by The Drinks Trust, he talks about his work changed from advising on government policy to creating an alternative to alcohol.
You were a government advisor and then fell out with the government over policy direction. Where do you think the government is currently going wrong on alcohol policy?
Yes, I was forced to resign in 2009 after my colleagues and I published in a leading medical journal a chart listing the most dangerous drugs in the UK, within which we placed alcohol as number five in a list of twenty. One of the factors informing this list was the significant number of annual deaths relating to alcohol.
At GABA Labs, we aren’t against alcohol and can understand its appeal and the role it has played in society for centuries. Humans are social beings, and alcohol can support connecting, relaxing, and bringing people together. However, we maintain that, if overused, alcohol is a dangerous substance.
During the pandemic, for example, there were 8,974 deaths from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK, which was an 18.6% increase compared with the year before. And every family in Britain is damaged to some extent by alcohol. If not in terms of physical or psychological damage, then in terms of the financial damage that excess drinking causes.
In short, alcohol – ethanol – is old technology, and we feel that the government is falling short on being proactive in exploring viable alternatives which offer some of the sensations and experiences that we enjoy from alcohol but without the alcohol itself.
Creating an alternative to alcohol
You decided to make a drink rather than fight for a change in policy or influence service delivery. Why do you think making a drink was the most important way to channel your talents?
As mentioned, humans are social creatures, and we need connection and community to survive – which is why alcohol, as a social lubricant, is so popular and widely accepted. Going as far as to have ethanol banned or made illegal like other psychoactive substances wouldn’t solve the problems associated with alcohol. In fact, it would exacerbate most of the issues, and the government would lose money.
We need to think bigger than banning, and believe we have done that thanks to years of research into a viable alternative to alcohol that we hope will reshape what the future of drinking looks like. Our mission is to change the face of social drinking by offering a solution that adults can enjoy without the extensive damage that comes with alcohol. We believe providing consumers with better options for a safe and effective social lubricant can drive positive long-term behaviour change.
GABA Labs has imagined this inevitable shift towards healthier alcohol-free drinking for some time. We are thrilled to have pioneered the world-first, scientifically proven GABAergic range of spirits, offering the upsides people seek from alcohol without the alcohol itself.
The idea for synthetic alcohol came to you a long time ago. How did you start the process of developing Alcarelle? What were some of the key hurdles have you faced?
There have been challenges at each stage of the journey. First, we applied modern neuroscience to identify where and how alcohol works in the brain. We had to separate the good and desirable actions of alcohol from the bad and undesirable actions.
Then came the investigation into the types of compounds that can mimic the good effects of alcohol but not the bad ones. We used medicinal chemistry to explore options and to design compounds that produce the desired effects. We applied cutting-edge techniques to model the binding of compounds to the GABA molecule and then synthesise and test the compounds for efficacy using modern assay systems.
Is Sentia an alternative to alcohol?
And how did the Sentia drink emerge from your work?
We knew that the approval process for Alcarelle could be long and fairly expensive, and we needed to demonstrate a proof of concept offering the benefits of a GABA alternative to alcohol, not only for investors but also for the general public. So began the search for types of compounds from within existing plant-based human foods, with the biochemistry that we believed could provide the desirable effects on GABA.
It was important these “good” compounds were in currently available food or food supplements so our drinks could be sold without needing regulatory testing and approval. We also needed companion ingredients, also plant-food based, to facilitate the uptake of these compounds into the body. Finally, we had to make the herbal concoctions palatable and enjoyable with good shelf life etc.
This has been a fascinating journey, and we have learned and continue to learn a great deal. Not only have we been able to identify specific combinations of certain plants that together produce that ‘two-drink’ effect, but in the process, we also studied GABAergic sources in food and have learned how important GABA is for healthy human development.
What is Gaba, and why and how does SENTIA affect it? Why is this such a revolution for alcohol-free drinks?
In a nutshell, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring substance that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system. In humans, GABA produces a calming effect, making people feel sociable and reducing feelings of anxiety, stress and fear.
SENTIA works by naturally replicating the feeling of drinking alcohol through the triggering of our brain’s natural GABA response. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for those sensations of sociability – meaning you can come together and connect without drinking alcohol. The result: a wonderful sensory experience responsible for that ‘two-drink sweet spot’ feeling without any hangover the next day.
GABA has been around for billions of years, and your body produces it naturally all the time, modulating your levels of relaxation and harmony. Consuming high volumes of alcohol leads to all sorts of unpleasant effects. But more moderate volumes of alcohol, around one or two units, raise our body’s GABA activity, which is understood to be the reason alcohol is so widely enjoyed.
The discovery that GABA is at the heart of the ‘good’ alcohol experience and the development of the ‘botanical GABA blend’ is a game-changer for the industry. Being able to work with varying and specific plant-based ingredients to offer customers a different drinking experience based on whether they choose to drink SENTIA Red, designed to help you connect and harmonies, versus our brand-new format, SENTIA Black, which offers focus and conviviality, is incredibly exciting for us, drinkers and the evolution of alcohol alternatives across the board. Planet Organic, Better Food and many premium bars around the UK are among our stockists. It is very exciting to be at the forefront of a brand-new movement and to help pioneer this emergent category.
The role of governments
Governments in the UK are very wary of alcohol-free. They are listening to selective and sketchy evidence and think it is all about getting people onto booze, not off it. How do you think the alcohol-free sector can lobby the Government effectively?
It would be remiss for the government not to take notice of or act on the fact that an increasing number of people are going sober long-term. Campaigns such as Dry January are increasing in popularity every year. In fact, in a recent survey we commissioned for SENTIA, 4 in 10 UK adults admitted trying to give up or cut out alcohol, with 59% citing health as the primary consideration.
On top of this, the no and low and functional alcohol sectors are growing year on year. 2023 will see this space expand further into interesting territory, where abstaining from alcohol does not have to be a conscious decision to ‘go without.’ We believe understanding GABA can help transform No and Low into a ‘functional’ sector where mindful drinkers can ‘opt in’ and socialise with sophisticated drinks choices that lubricate sociability and produce a sense of conviviality and well-being that we all crave as social beings. Alcohol has been around for a long time, but the shift in consumer behaviour towards conscious consumption is gathering momentum and cannot be ignored any longer.
At GABA Labs, it’s not simply about making a drink that both tastes and makes you feel great. It’s about developing our understanding of the amazing science behind GABA. We work closely with scientists in multiple related areas and have research collaborations with scientific teams across multiple universities. We do use Sentia to explore the role of GABA in the brain, gut and microbiome, and some experiments involve human subjects while others use more test-tube-based models.
Club Soda plays a leading role in representing the views of the mindful drinking community, making sure people’s experiences are reflected in government policymaking. Our latest research report, Drinks for Everyone, sets out the case for alternatives to alcohol.
Club Soda works with The Drinks Trust to support drinks industry professionals in the UK. If you work or have worked professionally with alcohol in the UK, you can access Club Soda’s courses free of charge.