Hangovers aren't caused by dehydration, low blood sugar, or acetaldehyde

The nascent science of hangovers -- launched in earnest in 2009 with the Alcohol Hangover Research Group -- has ruled out all the traditional culprits for your misery. A promising new culprit is inflammatory response to elevated levels of cytokines, molecules that transmit messages through the immune system.

The study of hangovers has gone hand-in-hand with the study of alcohol intoxication, itself something of a mystery. The leading theory implicates a specific gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and a complementary brain receptor, "that responds to low concentrations of ethanol, as produced by one glass of wine, in the brain."

Knowing that she was looking for a drug that would bind to that specific receptor—and nothing else—one of Olsen’s postdoctoral students, a researcher named Jing Liang, started experimenting with herbs from her native China, beginning with the ones that traditional medicine claimed had an effect on alcohol. And she found one. “Hovenia,” she says. “It’s been used in Asia for 500 years. I found it in a grocery store.”

The lab purified the plant until Olsen and his team had an ingredient that acted on the right receptor. It turned out to be a flavonoid, a common molecular family. It already had a name—ampelopsin—but they started talking about it according to the naming conventions of organic chemistry: dihydromyricetin.

“Jing gave a talk at a meeting about our results, and we invited our friends to the bar afterward to try it out,” Olsen says. “Now, this is not publishable, and you can’t use it for evidence for the FDA, but it’s good for us to know what kind of dose we should be using in our clinical trial—and that it doesn’t hurt anybody and does something to us that we want.”

Everything Science Knows About Hangovers—And How to Cure Them [Adam Rogers/Wired]

(Image: Mr. Potato Head Hangover,
Kevin Briody, CC-BY