An 18-year-old college freshman began drinking alcohol at 8:30 PM during a hazing event at his new fraternity. Between 8:30 and approximately midnight, he and several other pledges consumed beer and a bottle of whiskey, and then he consumed most of a bottle of rum at the urging of upperclassmen. The young man complained of feeling nauseated, lay down on a couch, and began to lose consciousness. Two upperclassmen carried him to his bedroom, placed him on his stomach, and positioned a trash can nearby. Approximately 10 minutes later, the freshman was found unconscious and covered with vomit. There was a delay in treatment because the upperclassmen called the college police instead of calling 911. After the call was transferred to 911, emergency medical technicians responded quickly and discovered that the young man was not breathing and that he had choked on his vomit. He was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in a coma for 2 days before ultimately being pronounced dead. The patient’s blood alcohol concentration shortly after arriving at the hospital was 510 mg/dL. What was the cause of this patient’s death? If he had received medical care sooner, what treatment might have prevented his death?
Alcohol, primarily in the form of ethyl alcohol (ethanol), has occupied an important place in the history of humankind for at least 8000 years. In Western society, beer and wine were a main staple of daily life until the 19th century. These relatively dilute alcoholic beverages were preferred over water, which was known—long before the discovery of microbes—to be associated with acute and chronic illness. Partially sterilized by the fermentation process and the alcohol content, alcoholic beverages provided important calories and nutrients and served as a main source of daily liquid intake. As systems for improved sanitation and water purification were introduced in the 1800s, beer and wine became less important components of the human diet, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages, including distilled preparations with higher concentrations of alcohol, shifted toward their present-day role, in many societies, as a socially acceptable form of recreation.
Today, alcohol is widely consumed. Like other sedative-hypnotic drugs, alcohol in low to moderate amounts relieves anxiety and fosters a feeling of well-being or even euphoria. However, alcohol is also the most commonly abused drug in the world, and the cause of vast medical and societal costs. In the United States, approximately 75% of the adult population drinks alcohol regularly. The majority of this drinking population is able to enjoy the pleasurable effects of alcohol without allowing alcohol consumption to become a health risk. However, about 8% of the general population in the United States has an alcohol-use disorder. Individuals who use alcohol in dangerous situations (eg, drinking and driving or combining alcohol with other medications) or continue to drink alcohol in spite of adverse consequences related directly to their alcohol consumption suffer from alcohol abuse (see also Chapter 32). Individuals with alcohol dependence have characteristics of alcohol abuse and additionally exhibit physical dependence on alcohol (tolerance to alcohol and signs and symptoms upon withdrawal). They also demonstrate an inability to control their drinking and devote much time to getting and using alcohol, or recovering from its effects. The alcohol-use disorders are complex, with genetic as well as environmental determinants.
The societal and medical costs of alcohol abuse are staggering. It is estimated that about 30% of all people admitted to hospitals have coexisting alcohol problems. Once in the hospital, people with chronic alcoholism generally have poorer outcomes. In addition, each year tens of thousands of children are born with morphologic and functional defects resulting from prenatal exposure to ethanol. Despite the investment of many resources and much basic research, alcoholism remains a common chronic disease that is difficult to treat.
Ethanol and many other alcohols with potentially toxic effects are used as fuels and in industry—some in enormous quantities. In addition to ethanol, methanol and ethylene glycol toxicity occurs with sufficient frequency to warrant discussion in this chapter.
BASIC PHARMACOLOGY OF ETHANOL
Ethanol is a small water-soluble molecule that is absorbed rapidly from the gastrointestinal tract. After ingestion of alcohol in the fasting state, peak blood alcohol concentrations are reached within 30 minutes. The presence of food in the stomach delays absorption by slowing gastric emptying. Distribution is rapid, with tissue levels approximating the concentration in blood. The volume of distribution for ethanol approximates total body water (0.5–0.7 L/kg). After an equivalent oral dose of alcohol, women have a higher peak concentration than men, in part because women have a lower total body water content and in part because of differences in first-pass metabolism. In the central nervous system (CNS), the concentration of ethanol rises quickly, since the brain receives a large proportion of total blood flow and ethanol readily crosses biologic membranes.
Over 90% of alcohol consumed is oxidized in the liver; much of the remainder is excreted through the lungs and in the urine. The excretion of a small but consistent proportion of alcohol by the lungs can be quantified with breath alcohol tests that serve as a basis for a legal definition of “driving under the influence (DUI)” in many countries. At levels of ethanol usually achieved in blood, the rate of oxidation follows zero-order kinetics; that is, it is independent of time and concentration of the drug. The typical adult can metabolize 7–10 g (150–220 mmol) of alcohol per hour, the equivalent of approximately one “drink” [10 oz (300 mL) beer, 3.5 oz (105 mL) wine, or 1 oz (30 mL) distilled 80-proof spirits].
Two major pathways of alcohol metabolism to acetaldehyde have been identified (Figure 23–1). Acetaldehyde is then oxidized to acetate by a third metabolic process.
A. Alcohol Dehydrogenase Pathway
The primary pathway for alcohol metabolism involves alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), a family of cytosolic enzymes that catalyze the conversion of alcohol to acetaldehyde (Figure 23–1, left). These enzymes are located mainly in the liver, but small amounts are found in other organs such as the brain and stomach. There is considerable genetic variation in ADH enzymes, affecting the rate of ethanol metabolism and also appearing to alter vulnerability to alcohol-abuse disorders. For example, one ADH allele (the ADH1B*2 allele), which is associated with rapid conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde, has been found to be protective against alcohol dependence in several ethnic populations and especially East Asians.
Some metabolism of ethanol by ADH occurs in the stomach in men, but a smaller amount occurs in women, who appear to have lower levels of the gastric enzyme. This difference in gastric metabolism of alcohol in women probably contributes to the sex-related differences in blood alcohol concentrations noted above.
During conversion of ethanol by ADH to acetaldehyde, hydrogen ion is transferred from ethanol to the cofactor nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) to form NADH. As a net result, alcohol oxidation generates an excess of reducing equivalents in the liver, chiefly as NADH. The excess NADH production appears to contribute to the metabolic disorders that accompany chronic alcoholism and to both the lactic acidosis and hypoglycemia that frequently accompany acute alcohol poisoning.
B. Microsomal Ethanol-Oxidizing System (MEOS)
This enzyme system, also known as the mixed function oxidase system, uses NADPH as a cofactor in the metabolism of ethanol (Figure 23–1, right) and consists primarily of cytochrome P450 2E1, 1A2, and 3A4 (see Chapter 4).
During chronic alcohol consumption, MEOS activity is induced. As a result, chronic alcohol consumption results in significant increases not only in ethanol metabolism but also in the clearance of other drugs eliminated by the cytochrome P450s that constitute the MEOS system, and in the generation of the toxic byproducts of cytochrome P450 reactions (toxins, free radicals, H2O2).
Much of the acetaldehyde formed from alcohol is oxidized in the liver in a reaction catalyzed by mitochondrial NAD-dependent aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). The product of this reaction is acetate (Figure 23–1), which can be further metabolized to CO2 and water, or used to form acetyl-CoA.
Oxidation of acetaldehyde is inhibited by disulfiram, a drug that has been used to deter drinking by patients with alcohol dependence. When ethanol is consumed in the presence of disulfiram, acetaldehyde accumulates and causes an unpleasant reaction of facial flushing, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headache. Several other drugs (eg, metronidazole, cefotetan, trimethoprim) inhibit ALDH and can cause a disulfiram-like reaction if combined with ethanol.
Some people, primarily of East Asian descent, have genetic deficiency in the activity of the mitochondrial form of ALDH, which is encoded by the ALDH2 gene. When these individuals drink alcohol, they develop high blood acetaldehyde concentrations and experience a noxious reaction similar to that seen with the combination of disulfiram and ethanol. This form of reduced-activity ALDH is strongly protective against alcohol-use disorders.
Pharmacodynamics of Acute Ethanol Consumption
A. Central Nervous System
The CNS is markedly affected by acute alcohol consumption. Alcohol causes sedation, relief of anxiety and, at higher concentrations, slurred speech, ataxia, impaired judgment, and disinhibited behavior, a condition usually called intoxication or drunkenness (Table 23–1). These CNS effects are most marked as the blood level is rising, because acute tolerance to the effects of alcohol occurs after a few hours of drinking. For chronic drinkers who are tolerant to the effects of alcohol, higher concentrations are needed to elicit these CNS effects. For example, an individual with chronic alcoholism may appear sober or only slightly intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration of 300–400 mg/dL, whereas this level is associated with marked intoxication or even coma in a nontolerant individual. The propensity of moderate doses of alcohol to inhibit the attention and information-processing skills as well as the motor skills required for operation of motor vehicles has profound effects. Approximately 30–40% of all traffic accidents resulting in a fatality in the United States involve at least one person with blood alcohol near or above the legal level of intoxication, and drunken driving is a leading cause of death in young adults.
Like other sedative-hypnotic drugs, alcohol is a CNS depressant. At high blood concentrations, it induces coma, respiratory depression, and death.
Ethanol affects a large number of membrane proteins that participate in signaling pathways, including neurotransmitter receptors for amines, amino acids, opioids, and neuropeptides; enzymes such as Na+/K+-ATPase, adenylyl cyclase, phosphoinositide-specific phospholipase C; a nucleoside transporter; and ion channels. Much attention has focused on alcohol’s effects on neurotransmission by glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the main excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the CNS. Acute ethanol exposure enhances the action of GABA at GABAA receptors, which is consistent with the ability of GABA-mimetics to intensify many of the acute effects of alcohol and of GABAA antagonists to attenuate some of the actions of ethanol. Ethanol inhibits the ability of glutamate to open the cation channel associated with the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) subtype of glutamate receptors. The NMDA receptor is implicated in many aspects of cognitive function, including learning and memory. “Blackouts”—periods of memory loss that occur with high levels of alcohol—may result from inhibition of NMDA receptor activation. Experiments that use modern genetic approaches eventually will yield a more precise definition of ethanol’s direct and indirect targets. In recent years, experiments with mutant strains of mice, worms, and flies have reinforced the importance of previously identified targets and helped identify new candidates, including a calcium-regulated and voltage-gated potassium channel that may be one of ethanol’s direct targets (see Box: What Can Drunken Worms, Flies, and Mice Tell Us about Alcohol?).
Significant depression of myocardial contractility has been observed in individuals who acutely consume moderate amounts of alcohol, ie, at a blood concentration above 100 mg/dL.
C. Smooth Muscle
Ethanol is a vasodilator, probably as a result of both CNS effects (depression of the vasomotor center) and direct smooth muscle relaxation caused by its metabolite, acetaldehyde. In cases of severe overdose, hypothermia—caused by vasodilation—may be marked in cold environments. Ethanol also relaxes the uterus and—before the introduction of more effective and safer uterine relaxants (eg, calcium channel antagonists)—was used intravenously for the suppression of premature labor.
Consequences of Chronic Alcohol Consumption
Chronic alcohol consumption profoundly affects the function of several vital organs—particularly the liver—and the nervous, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and immune systems. Since ethanol has low potency, it requires concentrations thousands of times higher than other misused drugs (eg, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines) to produce its intoxicating effects. As a result, ethanol is consumed in quantities that are unusually large for a pharmacologically active drug. The tissue damage caused by chronic alcohol ingestion results from a combination of the direct effects of ethanol and acetaldehyde, and the metabolic consequences of processing a heavy load of a metabolically active substance. Specific mechanisms implicated in tissue damage include increased oxidative stress coupled with depletion of glutathione, damage to mitochondria, growth factor dysregulation, and potentiation of cytokine-induced injury.
For a drug like ethanol, which exhibits low potency and specificity, and modifies complex behaviors, the precise roles of its many direct and indirect targets are difficult to define. Increasingly, ethanol researchers are employing genetic approaches to complement standard neurobiologic experimentation. Three experimental animal systems for which powerful genetic techniques exist—mice, flies, and worms—have yielded intriguing results.
Strains of mice with abnormal sensitivity to ethanol were identified many years ago by breeding and selection programs. Using sophisticated genetic mapping and sequencing techniques, researchers have made progress in identifying the genes that confer these traits. A more targeted approach is the use of transgenic mice to test hypotheses about specific genes. For example, after earlier experiments suggested a link between brain neuropeptide Y (NPY) and ethanol, researchers used two transgenic mouse models to further investigate the link. They found that a strain of mice that lacks the gene for NPY—NPY knockout mice—consume more ethanol than control mice and are less sensitive to ethanol’s sedative effects. As would be expected if increased concentrations of NPY in the brain make mice more sensitive to ethanol, a strain of mice that overexpresses NPY drinks less alcohol than the controls even though their total consumption of food and liquid is normal. Work with other transgenic knockout mice supports the central role in ethanol responses of signaling systems that have long been believed to be involved (eg, GABAA, glutamate, dopamine, opioid, and serotonin receptors) and has helped build the case for newer candidates such as NPY and corticotropin-releasing hormone, cannabinoid receptors, ion channels, and protein kinase C.
It is easy to imagine mice having measurable behavioral responses to alcohol, but drunken worms and fruit flies are harder to imagine. Actually, both invertebrates respond to ethanol in ways that parallel mammalian responses. Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies exposed to ethanol vapor show increased locomotion at low concentrations but at higher concentrations, become poorly coordinated, sedated, and finally immobile. These behaviors can be monitored by sophisticated laser or video tracking methods or with an ingenious “chromatography” column of air that separates relatively insensitive flies, from inebriated flies, which drop to the bottom of the column. The worm Caenorhabditis elegans similarly exhibits increased locomotion at low ethanol concentrations and, at higher concentrations, reduced locomotion, sedation, and—something that can be turned into an effective screen for mutant worms that are resistant to ethanol—impaired egg laying. The advantage of using flies and worms as genetic models for ethanol research is their relatively simple neuroanatomy, well-established techniques for genetic manipulation, an extensive library of well-characterized mutants, and completely or nearly completely solved genetic codes. Already, much information has accumulated about candidate proteins involved with the effects of ethanol in flies. In an elegant study on C elegans, researchers found evidence that a calcium-activated, voltage-gated BK potassium channel is a direct target of ethanol. This channel, which is activated by ethanol, has close homologs in flies and vertebrates, and evidence is accumulating that ethanol has similar effects in these homologs. Genetic experiments in these model systems should provide information that will help narrow and focus research into the complex and important effects of ethanol in humans.
Chronic consumption of large amounts of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of death. Deaths linked to alcohol consumption are caused by liver disease, cancer, accidents, and suicide.
A. Liver and Gastrointestinal Tract
Liver disease is the most common medical complication of alcohol abuse; an estimated 15–30% of chronic heavy drinkers eventually develop severe liver disease. Alcoholic fatty liver, a reversible condition, may progress to alcoholic hepatitis and finally to cirrhosis and liver failure. In the United States, chronic alcohol abuse is the leading cause of liver cirrhosis and of the need for liver transplantation. The risk of developing liver disease is related both to the average amount of daily consumption and to the duration of alcohol abuse. Women appear to be more susceptible to alcohol hepatotoxicity than men. Concurrent infection with hepatitis B or C virus increases the risk of severe liver disease.