Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

An Antidote to Fantasy?

By Stephen Luntz

The site where the drug GHB binds to brain proteins has been identified, raising hope that an antidote may be produced against its sometimes lethal effects.

Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid exists naturally in the human central nervous system and in some foods. While sometimes sold legally as a treatment for rare diseases, as a general anaesthetic and to ease alcohol withdrawal, GHB has become popular as a party drug under many street names, including Fantasy. While GHB can produce euphoria and enhanced sensuality, excess doses can lead to nausea, amnesia and death. Most deaths occur when taken in combination with alcohol.

Prof Mary Collins of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Pharmacy reported in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that GHB binds to a GABAA protein receptor. Even at low dosages GHB binds strongly to this receptor, despite previous theories that GHB is primarily a GABAB agonist.

“GABAA receptors are part of a very important family of proteins involved in almost everything the brain needs, such as sleep, anxiety and memory,” Collins says. “However, GHB only links to one specific subtype and we don’t know this one’s role.” The receptor appears to play a role in sleep and to interact with alcohol.

“The drug is an extremely toxic euphoriant, because the difference between a normal intoxicating dose and a fatal dose is so small,” Collins says. This makes the search for an antidote important, but the research team also hopes to find a drug that can reproduce the medicinal benefits without the risk factors.

Collins considers this possible because GHB also affects at least one other protein, and says: “We really don’t know which effects are affiliated with which protein. We need to work out which are the good guys and find a mimic that just targets that.”