A hormone shot helped drunk mice sober up quickly

The finding hints at a possible treatment for alcohol poisoning

photo of a mouse standing on its hind legs in a glass bowl and peering over the edge

A hormone made by the liver helps drunk mice sober up.

Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Moment/Getty Images Plus

The only cure to being drunk is to wait it out. But that might not always be the case: Injecting drunk mice with a naturally occurring hormone helped them sober up more quickly than they otherwise would have, a new study shows.

Mice that received a shot of FGF21 — a hormone made by the liver — woke up from a drunken stupor roughly twice as fast as those that didn’t, researchers report in the March 7 Cell Metabolism.

The find could one day be used to help treat alcohol poisoning, a sometimes-deadly side effect of heavy drinking that lands millions of people in the emergency room every year, says molecular endocrinologist David Mangelsdorf.

The sobering effect of FGF21 isn’t the first time the hormone has been linked to drinking. Scientists have previously shown that livers ramp up production of this hormone when alcohol floods the bloodstream. And while FGF21 doesn’t help break down alcohol, researchers have found that the hormone can help protect livers from the toxic effects of liquor while dampening the desire to continue drinking in mice and monkeys.

Those findings made Mangelsdorf, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and his colleagues curious whether FGF21 also plays a role in recovering from too much alcohol. So the team fed mice enough alcohol to knock them out and waited to see how long it took for them to wake up.

Mice that were genetically altered to be unable to produce their own FGF21 took around an hour and a half longer to wake up than normal mice. But regular mice given an extra dose of FGF21 woke up twice as fast than those that hadn’t received a shot. Drunk mice that were injected with FGF21 were also able to keep their balance for longer than their peers while placed on a slowly rotating platform.

FGF21 probably helps mice sober up by activating nerve cells in a part of the brain involved with stimulating wakefulness, the researchers say. If the hormone works in similar ways in people, it could be used to nudge people suffering from alcohol poisoning back into wakefulness, Mangelsdorf says.

That ability could be useful because — aside from the hazard of choking while unconscious — doctors sometimes must wait for people with alcohol poisoning to wake up before being able to address their symptoms.

“There is no drug for treating alcohol poisoning,” Mangelsdorf says. A drug that could help people wake up — much in the same way that the medication Narcan prods consciousness along in opioid overdoses — would be a “phenomenal” improvement for treating people rushed to the emergency room, he says (SN: 3/29/18).

Researchers have found ways to sober up mice before, but these treatments didn’t work well in people (SN: 11/29/22). FGF21 might be a different story, Mangelsdorf thinks, because of the previous research on the hormone in monkeys, which are more like humans than mice.

Any drugs derived from FGF21 wouldn’t have to stick to treating alcohol poisoning. Researchers are also looking to use the hormone to address liver disease and alcohol addiction, says Lorenzo Leggio, a physician scientist with the National Institutes of Health who is based in Baltimore and was not involved with the study. 

In the meantime, Leggio says, this study adds “an important piece to the puzzle” for understanding the role of FGF21 and developing new treatments for alcohol addiction and other ailments.

About Freda Kreier

Freda Kreier was a fall 2021 intern at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from Colorado College and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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