Sentia: The science behind safe social drinking

On 1 February at the Intellectual Forum, Professor David Nutt, one of the creators of new non-alcoholic drink Sentia, introduced the science behind his mission to develop a new, safer alcohol alternative.

Prof Nutt is one of the world’s foremost experts on alcohol and its effects. After first training as a doctor, he began to develop a track record in alcohol research when he spent two years at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the United States doing research on the biochemistry, pharmacology, and clinical science of alcoholism. In 2008, now back in the UK, he was appointed Chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. His time in the role was short lived, however, as he repeatedly clashed with government officials over national drug policies.

The conflicts that resulted that resulted in his 2009 firing in part revolved around alcohol, which he believed the government was not doing enough to regulate; in a newspaper headline that Prof Nutt showed from when he was fired from his government position in 2009, he warned of an alcohol ‘time bomb’.

Prof Nutt believes he was right to warn about the dangers of alcohol, which is now the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50 and, he said, will be the leading cause of death in women under the age of 50 within a few years.

But despite the numerous health risks posed by the overconsumption of alcohol, it still plays a significant role in our society, in part, as Prof Nutt argues, because it allows us to be more social. “One of the things that’s really clear is that humans want to be social”, Prof Nutt said. “But for many of us it's quite difficult, and anxiety in social situations can disable us. Alcohol has allowed human society to be social for as long as humans have been drinking alcohol”.

With that in mind, Prof Nutt began to consider if he could target our desire to be more social with a non-alcoholic alternative. He wondered: “Maybe if we can't reverse or protect people against the harms of alcohol, can we give people what they want from alcohol without the harms?”

He co-founded GABA Labs in 2016 in order to achieve this vision of bringing more choices to adult social drinkers by creating a drink that will give consumers the positive feelings they seek from alcohol without the downsides. To do so, Prof Nutt and his team are targeting certain GABA receptors in the frontal part of our brains which are responsible for managing relaxation and socialisation.

The science behind actually achieving this is challenging, time-consuming, and expensive, as Prof Nutt admits. GABA Labs’ ultimate goal—to produce an ingredient that could then be added to non-alcoholic beverages to create alternative versions of cocktails, beer, and wine—is still some time away.

In the short term, GABA Labs has harnessed substances found naturally in plants to create the same effect. Sentia, a botanical GABA Spirit, is the first consumer-facing brand to evolve from this work. Using naturally-occurring botanicals to create the drinks means that, unlike the ingredient that GABA Labs is trying to synthetically create, Sentia has a specific taste—it currently comes in two versions, Red and Black, which have sweet, spicy, and floral tasting notes. But it is a positive (and, according to the feedback of audience members who tasted the drink after the event, very tasty) first step towards making social drinking healthier and safer.

While Prof Nutt admitted that he doesn’t think alcohol will ever fully lose its appeal, he believes a lot of people would like the option of having a functional alternative like Sentia. He summarized: “It would be really nice if people could socialize without having to use alcohol”. 

Watch the event recording on YouTube.