Re: Ethanol effects on membranes

I was talking with my adviser, a biochemist, at a dinner he had at his house. After a few drinks we started talking ‘shop’ and we ended up discussion the effects of ethanol on the human body. He said that nobody was quite sure what it did, that it probably had something to do with the hydrophillic/hydrophibic interactions with membranes in the brain causing a release of neural hormones. So, I’m just wondering if there has been any definitive research done on this. (aka I’m too lazy to check the journals)

Why do i have to go outside for lab? Trying to become an immunologist. --Random rants at the biology department

What, is it term paper time again allready.
A search at for web sites containing the words, “ethanol”+“brain”+“membrane”, turned up 4400 hits. I’ll let you wade through the mess.

my friend Joel is, at this very moment, working on giving ethanol to hamsters. Yes, this is class-related, not just for shits and kicks. He’s trying to find out whether the hamsters will eat more unsaturated fats (or maybe it’s saturated). Anyway, we had a long discussion about this last week. I’ll see if I can’t get him to c’mon over and comment.


The Straight Dope can never take the place of good journal or library research. What your professor said is not quite correct. Alcohol works on the GABA neurotransmitter system (it specifically targets subtypes of GABA neurotransmitter gates: GABA sub A if you want to get technical). Most depressants including marijuana also work on the GABA system. I will not get into any more detail unless you express an interest in pursuing a Ph.D. in pharmacology, psychopharmacology, or another area of neuroscience. Research scientists around the world are working on just about anything that you would want to know at any given time.

One thing that I have learned is that even college professors have their urban legends and this is one of them. There are still some unanswered questions about alcohol’s effects but the research in this field is fairly well developed. Feel free to e-mail me if you are seriously interested in scholarly research in this field.

Most drugs work by attaching themselves to specific receptors* on various cells of the body. Alcohol is almost unique insofar as it does not act in that way.

Alcohol, by virtue of its ability to dissolve in fat and water (to some extent at least), also can dissolve itself into cell membranes (which have both fatty and watery components). It inserts itself here and there nonspecifically in the membrane, thus expanding it.

In the brain, this expansion of the cell membranes changes the ability of certain substances (potassium, calcium, …) to get across. Since the ebb and flow of potassium, calcium, etc. across brain cell membranes is precisely how brain cells normally work, it isn’t surprising that alcohol affects, if not impairs, brain function.

For more info, you’ll need to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

  • the fact that heroin and morphine acted on the brain, presumably by attaching to a specific receptor there, lead researchers to search for the native brain substance that is designed to attach to such receptors. The class of endorphin compounds was thereby discovered. This is a great example of a) how drugs usually work and b) how research works.

… like mavpace.

Not everything about alcohol is known. However, given that it has been studied so extensively and has so many health implications, most of the effects of alcohol are known. Discussing alcohol is like discussing physics, you can always take it to different levels. Alcohol has intrinsic effects, plus it acts differently at a liver cell than it does at a neuron. So the effects can be complicated, both biochemically and macroscopically. But the effects sre well known and reasonably well understood.

Try typing PubMed into your search engine and once you arrive at that site (NIH)–you’ll get more citations than you’ll know what to to with if you search ethanol. Add keywords for what you want; but you’ll have to modify this search yourself to tailor it for your needs.

PubMed will give you the most recent published studies in real journals; probably more than you might know what to do with. But, this site has the search engine that most people in the biological scientific field use to find information published in the journals.

Yuo know, on rereading the OP, I’m not sure why I should offer tips to a college student (drinking w/biochemist advisor) ‘too lazy’ to research for her him/herself.

When I (and I imagine others on this MB)went to get a degree, a certain amount of self-motivated research was invovled. Posting on the Web wasn’t an option; and like all answers one receives in life–they might not be true. You have to decide for yourself.

Good luck w/grad school :wink:

Ok in my defense,
It is the middle of finals when this question finally caused me to waste 4 hours in research (not the good kind mind you). After realizing that the work I was avoiding was not going away, and those 4 hours would have been better spent sleeping or actually communicating with another living creature (lab mice don’t count…) so I figured I could pick some other peoples brains on this. CSA provided me with a massive amount of information on ethanol and membrane dynamics, but in 4 hours I couldn’t narrow down the topic to get down to any papers that primarily dealt with my question. Although I did find a great paper on monkey-branch-swinging dynamics that was published about a year ago… People get funding for stuff like that?!

And lets be honest, alcohol was one of the first mass produced consumer items humankind created (most usefull anyway). I figured that alcohol plays such a large role in ritual and recreational aspects of life that more research would have been done on it.

Lets face it, it could have been worse… I could have been drunk when writing it…

And 647, I actually take a lot of offense at your post leaping to personal judgements about a person and their friends based off of a discriptive comments to clarify the context of the question.

  1. Judging from the post I’ve read people here seem to be enlightened, educated and rather open minded. You unfortunatly don’t seem to qualify for all of them.
  2. Strangely enough, not all advisors are in the same field as you wish to go into, I myself am working twoadrs a degree in Viral Immunology and spending time researching ethanol and its effects on membranes when I should be either running T-cell receptor blots or studying for finals isn’t a good use of my time. Also, as the subtle characteristics of the fields of cell biology and biochemistry aren’t my speciality much of the primary literature requries much more work to understand. Its rather interesting that you are assuming that I fit into a general catagory of people who are unwilling to do work. Especially when I only gave the slightest bit of background data (I was hoping for a slightly more scientific answer than “it gets you drunk”, and slightly less complex than association kenitics and/or hormone release mechanisms.)
    3)… well I forgot my 3. Basically, your attitude and offhand dismissal of me and my question is both insulting, judgemental and managing to flee to the moral high ground all at the same time. Thank you for reassuring me that my fundamental disgust of people like you isn’t misplayed.

Because, lets face it, if i wasn’t lazy instead of asking my question I would have spent the take it takes to learn the various experimental procedures associated with the papers I found and either been able to understand the research being done and the important conclusions they make or I would have just run the experiments myself and figured it out on my own.

However, for the rest of you thanks for the info, and sorry about the tirade, I get kinda cranky when I sink below the 2 hrs sleep/night mark for much more than a week.

It appears that it is still not understood very well. This is from a very good discussion of the subject by researchers at California State University at San Marcos