Can Chemical Engineers contribute to developing brain specific marker for alcohol & drug detection?

While engaged to provide advice to Commissioners and Chief Commissioners of Police across Australia and New Zealand in 2017 as part of a multi-disciplinary team comprising of Forensic Scientists, Engineers, Statisticians, Lawyers, Economists and Philosophers on solving a series of anthropological challenges and upon developing an operating procedure for the handling of a highly lethal illicit drug (i.e. dangerous goods); I was invited to be part of a contingent recommending plausible options to the Toxicology Specialist Advisory Group seeking solutions to prevailing Alcohol and Drugs (‘AOD’).

Now, assume you are the only Chemical Engineer on that team, how would you attempt a contribution to help?

AOD abuse have, for some time, reached an epidemic proportion. Governments, government agencies, experts and NGOs do not all agree on a common intervention and response approach as the fundamental attractions and lures of AOD are multifaceted. Some are causative, others are simply correlative. AOD abuse create biochemical personalities and blank periods in those affected.

In Australia, according to ‘Drug Policy Australia’ (2020), 9.0 million (43%) Australians aged over 14 used an illegal drug in their lifetime; 3.4 million (16.4%) Australians aged over 14 used an illicit drug within the preceding 12-months; Australians spent $9.3 billion on illicit recreational drugs in 2018; and Australians spent another $14.9 billion on alcohol.

In the UK, according to Nuffield Trust (2019), “alcohol-related death rate varies considerably across the UK. Scotland has had the highest alcohol-related death rate since the time series began in 2001, while England has had the lowest. In 2018, the rate was 20.8 deaths per 100,000 people in Scotland, compared with 10.7 deaths per 100,000 people in England. The alcohol-related death rate in Wales was 13.1 deaths per 100,000 people. Data for Northern Ireland were not published in 2018”.

The lack of common sustainable intervention and response approach is further exacerbated by the lack of a gold detection standard. As a multi-disciplinary Chemical Engineer, you understand that just as with some other medical conditions (‘stressors’) affecting specific tissues of the body (e.g. cancer, diabetics, cirrhosis, etc.), their occurrence and level (concentration) of impact are detected by testing for trace concentration of certain markers in bodily fluid. Such tests—testing for effects—are possible because of the effects the stressor type (conditions) have on specific body organs or tissues. This can be applied for consumption of AOD.

AOD target the synaptic cleft, and they affect presynaptic and postsynaptic chemical balances to alter neurotransmission capabilities of the brain (Akindeju, 2017). Peterson (2005) suggested the specie balance of Serotonin, Dopamine, Salsolinol, and Beta-Endorphin amongst others at the clefts might be good indicators on volume of alcohol consumed and perhaps, timing.

  • Is it conceivable that the brain produces a marker type specific to rapid alteration and imbalance in presynaptic and postsynaptic chemicals, species population densities and altered synaptic cleft neuro-transmissivity? (see Yang, et al., 2013)
  • Can this marker be identified? (see RCPA, 2014)
  • Can the marker be used as common denominator for testing AOD consumption?
  • Can this test overcome the currency limitations of AOD detection methods?

Teaming up with a Toxicologist, Neuroscientists, Brain Physiologist, and an Endocrinologist, the impacts of AOD on human tissues, especially the brain, are considered in light of cell-surface receptors that modulate ion channels and ‘second-messenger’ systems, and how circulating hormones and blood cause modifications to tissue structures and chemistry (McEwen, 1999). Such circulations occur in vessels ranging from 8microns to 12mm in size and are generally laminar but can experience turbulence, especially with age.

As the Chemical Engineer, with keen interest in Biochemicals and Biomedicals, I can and continue to provide specialise knowledge in the following:

  • mass and energy balance implications at presynaptic and postsynaptic surfaces
  • specie distributions and population density determinations
  • application of other transport phenomena and physics to flows in human body and cerebral circulation (Herman, 2016).


Akindeju, M.K., 2017. Future Testing Technologies for Alcohol and Drugs: Is a Gold Standard Feasible?

Drug Policy Australia, 2020. Is it Time to Legalise Drugs? Facts from the Government.

Herman, I.P., 2016. Physics of the Human body. Biological and Medical Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Springer Books.

McEwen BS. Endocrine Effects on the Brain and Their Relationship to Behavior. In: Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, et al., editors. Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999. Chapter 49. Available from:

Nuffield Trust (UK), 2019. Alcohol-related harm and drinking behaviour

Peterson, K., 2005. Biomarkers for Alcohol Use and Abuse, Alcohol Research & Health. Vol. 28, No. 1 2004/2005, Pg 30 – 37.

The Royal College of Pathologists of Australia (RCPA): Making Sense of Inflammatory Markers.

Yang, G. et al. 2013. Modelling diffusion process of neurotransmitter across Synapse, BENG221. University of California.

Supporting Footages:

Drug Policy Australia: Is it time to legalise drugs?

Narcoon (UK): An Introduction to Narcoon Drug Education: