By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Congress will mandate tech in new cars by 2026 to stop drunk driving. Auto manufacturers have five years to research and present ideas for approval by lawmakers. Alcohol affects receptors for the brain’s neurotransmitters.
New legislation will require that new vehicles made after 2026 have technology installed in them that will prevent drunk driving. Car makers have until then to research and develop the tech and present it to Congress, who will choose one innovation for implementation. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving kills more than 10,000 people per year—about one person every 52 minutes.
It’s hardly news that alcohol affects the brain, but on a chemical level, what happens? In his video series The Addictive Brain, Dr. Thad Polk, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, said two of the most important affected neurotransmitters are glutamate and GABA.
Glutamate and NMDA Receptors
“Neurons in the brain typically communicate using special chemicals called neurotransmitters,” Dr. Polk said. “One neuron releases a bunch of neurotransmitter molecules and these molecules bind to receptors on neighboring neurons, potentially activating those receptors and producing specific biological effects. Drugs of abuse typically bind to the same receptors as natural neurotransmitters, but then produce abnormal levels of activity in those receptors.”
This abnormal activity is what makes a drug psychoactive, making a user feel euphoria or contentment or something else.
Alcohol does the same thing. Most crucially, it binds to glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate has many receptors, but the receptor that alcohol influences the most is NMDA, which plays a role in learning and memory. Alcohol binds to NMDA receptors and makes them less responsive to glutamate in a process called allosteric modulation.
“The bottom line is that alcohol reduces the effects that glutamate normally has,” Dr. Polk said. “By inhibiting or antagonizing glutamate, alcohol suppresses neural activity in the brain—that’s why it produces a sedative and hypnotic effect. Also, the fact that NMDA receptors play an important role in learning and memory may explain why large doses of alcohol can produce blackouts and amnesia.”
Yo GABA GABA
Glutamate may be the brain’s major excitatory transmitter, but GABA is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter. According to Dr. Polk, when GABA receptors on a neuron are activated, they try to prevent the neuron from firing; so, increasing its activity suppresses neural activity. Although scientists haven’t yet found the exact site on GABA receptors where alcohol binds, it’s widely believed that alcohol makes GABA receptors more responsive to GABA, reducing neural activity.
“The reason they believe this [happens] is because the effects of alcohol are so similar to drugs that do bind to GABA receptors—in particular, barbiturate drugs,” he said. “Barbiturates are known to bind to GABA receptors, and they […] also inhibit neural activity and produce sedative, hypnotic effects.”
More evidence to suggest that alcohol binds to the same areas of GABA receptors as barbiturates do is that there is a cross tolerance between the two. If someone has taken enough—and built up a tolerance to—either alcohol or barbiturate drugs, then switch to the other, they often find it takes a larger amount of use than would be expected in order to produce the same psychoactive effects.
Since alcohol use reduces neural activity and produces relaxing effects, it can impair reaction time and judgment, both of which must be in peak condition for operating an automobile.