It’s never a good idea to get drunk
Professor Dora Duka is an experimental psychologist whose research focuses on changes in the brain caused by drugs and alcohol
I was only the second woman from my small village in Greece to go to university. When I was 14 my friends were telling me about the dowries their mothers were putting together for them, you know blankets and bed linen and such like. I asked my mother if she had a dowry for me. She said mine would be my education.
As a teenager I used to go to the library and read Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde and Greek philosophers. I won prizes in school for essays on philosophy and for maths because I always wanted to be the best.
I went to Athens University to study medicine. My pharmacology professor saw I was strong in pharmacology and asked me to help teach in the lab. That’s when my interest in drugs and the brain really started. I realised that carrying out research was what gave me fulfilment, and I later did my PhD in pharmacology in his lab.
I then took up a Greek Government scholarship that allowed me to work in laboratories abroad. I visited labs in England, Holland and Germany till I chose to work in Munich, in Germany with the great pharmacologist, Albert Herz. I trained as an anaesthesiologist and started researching drugs used for sleep induction, and pain relief. That led to a position in a pharmaceutical company in Berlin.
I visited Sussex in 1994, on a purely social visit. It was a perfect May day, with the larks singing up on the Downs. I knew right away I could live here, and was lucky that soon afterwards, and entirely coincidentally, a post became available in experimental Psychology. I set up the Human Psychopharmacology Lab in 1995, focusing on the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain.
My greatest achievement in my work is in discovering how alcohol changes the brain. My research found that for alcoholics, repeated detoxifications can actually do harm to that part of the brain that makes decisions.
It’s the abruptness of stopping drinking that seems to be the problem. Those brain mechanisms that adapt to the presence of alcohol now continue to work without alcohol to oppose them. It’s likely that if you reduce alcohol intake gradually, the brain will be able to adapt back again without as much damage. I am now collaborating with a clinic in London to develop a new detox programme and we are presenting these ideas to the Faculty of Addictions Psychiatry in April in Edinburgh.
Paradoxically, under some very specific circumstances, alcohol may actually help you remember. One of my experiments showed that if you give people sufficient alcohol, they will forget everything that happened while under the influence (i.e. a “blackout”), but as a result they may remember better those events that they experienced before they started drinking. Although it was an interesting discovery, I wouldn’t recommend it if you are revising for exams!
My current research is looking at whether a drug used to treat ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) can help alcoholics. We know that alcoholics and people with ADHD have related brain impairments when it comes making decisions. With a Horizon 2020 grant, we’ll be looking at the effects of a single application of a compound that increases the release of noradrenaline, a hormone that supports attention and helps decisions.
In moderation alcohol is a good recreational drug, but we also know about its dangers. The problem with other recreational drugs, such as ecstasy or so-called ‘legal highs’, is that we don’t know how they damage our bodies. We don’t understand their dangers.
It’s never a good idea to get drunk. That’s something I have learned culturally as well as scientifically. In Greece if you get drunk someone takes you home immediately to protect you. It’s strange that in this country, being drunk is looked often on as a positive.