What is Alcarelle?

Originally known as Alcosynth, Alcarelle is the latest name for a synthetic alcohol substitute being developed by Prof David Nutt.


The goal is to produce a safe and responsible alternative to alcohol that can provide the beneficial relaxing and social-lubricating effects without the downsides of getting too tipsy, suffering from hangovers, or causing damage to the liver or other organs.

Its exact chemical composition, however, remains a closely guarded secret.

Who is David Nutt?

Prof Nutt is the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London. He was formerly the chair of the UK’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs before being dismissed in 2009 for his comment that horse riding was more dangerous than the recreational drug ecstasy.

He has since carried out pioneering work on the potential uses of psilocybin, which is the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms, in helping with the treatment of depression.

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How does synthetic alcohol work?

Nutt is playing his cards close to his chest, but he has stated that the original idea came to him when he was studying the effects of alcohol on GABA receptors in the brain. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that blocks signals fired between different nerve cells in the brain. It is widely associated with triggering feelings of sedation and relaxation.

When we drink alcohol it binds onto GABA receptors and mimics the effect of the GABA neurotransmitter. This is why we feel relaxed or sleepy after drinking. However, if we consume too much alcohol the GABA pathways can be overstimulated leading to an extreme sedation of the central nervous system.

In the case of Alcarelle, Nutt and his team aim to create a molecule that binds to GABA receptors in a specific way to induce the relaxing and social-lubricating effects of alcohol, without any of the downsides.

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How safe is Alcarelle?

As it stands, only a few of the researchers at the lab have tried Alcarelle, so the jury is still out. Nutt estimates that it would be around 100 times safer than traditional alcohol.

A drinker would only need to consume a few micrograms of Alcarelle to get the same effect as a regular drink, which typically contains a few grams of alcohol.

The team plans to work with food scientists to rigorously test Alcarelle’s safety, with the end goal of having it regulated as a safe-to-consume ingredient within the next five years.

Could synthetic alcohol become addictive?

Again, we can’t say for sure without knowing its full chemical make-up. Nutt and his team say that as they know chemically what causes some of us to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs, they can make sure that this effect is not present in Alcarelle.

How will Alcarelle be used?

Apparently, Alcarelle doesn’t taste particularly pleasant by itself. In the lab, it has been mixed with fruit juice.

If it does ever make it to market, it therefore seems most likely that it will be as a complete pre-mixed drink, which would then be sold in bottles or cans – just like any other beverage that has been deemed as fit for consumption under standard UK food safety and hygiene regulations.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.