Nicholas Leadbeater is an associate professor of organic and inorganic chemistry at the University of Connecticut, where he heads the New Synthetic Methods Group. Leadbeater and the NSMG research cleaner and more efficient methods for creating synthetic materials. Dr. Leadbeater holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where he was a research fellow until 1999.
Everyone likes a good laugh – be that at hearing a funny joke or seeing something amusing in the world around them. But there is ongoing debate about stopping people laughing from one particular thing – a gas. Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, has been used for many years as an anesthetic and is still used for pain relief during dentistry and childbirth. The exact way that nitrous oxide works is still not fully understood. It is thought to inhibit receptors found in nerve cells and also promote the release of natural painkillers made in the body such as endorphins. The principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals but they may also produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by opioid drugs. That’s where the different use of nitrous oxide comes in. Inhalation of nitrous oxide for recreational use, with the purpose of causing euphoria or hallucinations, began in the British upper class in 1799, at what was known as “laughing gas parties”. It still goes on today around the world. Most healthcare professionals believe that nitrous oxide is safe to use recreationally but there are also many proponents for its removal. There are risks of asphyxiation if used for too long at any one time – breathing in high concentrations of laughing gas can quickly reduce the blood’s level of oxygen. It can also be mistaken for other more dangerous gases such as butane, and heavy use can also deplete the body’s stores of vitamin B12, causing anemia and nerve damage. With this in mind, it’s probably safer to get your laughs from your favorite stand-up comedian rather than a whiff of nitrous oxide.