Should we cheer a sobriety pill?

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. It is associated with the neurotransmitter known
as gamma-aminobutyric acid, or "gaba". The brain has many different receptors for gaba, each of which induces one of the various experiences familiar to alcohol drinkers: euphoria, sedation, memory loss and impaired motor skills, for instance. It might be possible to create a pill that binds only to the gaba receptor associated with euphoria and thus creates none of the negative effects. Such alcohol proxies are, to puritans' undoubted horror, under development.

No rewards

Research is also aiming to reduce harm from narcotics by creating vaccines that will help those trying to kick cocaine or heroin addictions. These innovations train the immune system to respond as if the narcotic were a foreign invader.

By vaccinating an addict with a drug composed of conjoined cocaine and cholera toxin, for instance, the immune system generates antibodies
to cocaine. When it comes into contact with pure cocaine, it sequesters it in the bloodstream, preventing it from reaching the reward centres of the brain.

No one pretends that these measures are problem-free. In some trials, narcotic vaccines have led to relapsing addicts taking dangerous amounts of drugs in pursuit of a full high. Because the sobriety pill makes you feel normal but does nothing to reduce blood alcohol levels, it brings with it increased risk of alcohol poisoning and, for those who have popped a pill and consider themselves sober enough to drive, a drink-driving conviction.

However, once we accept that human beings won't stop getting high, it becomes clear that finding ways to minimise harm is, flawed or not, the responsible thing to do - whatever the new puritans say.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.