Beer Brain Study: Can Just a Taste of Alcohol Trigger Cravings?

By Karen Fredrickson


A study shows a taste of beer may trigger cravings.

"It's the first drink that gets you drunk," is a warning from Alcoholics Anonymous to its members, reminding alcoholics that even a sip can cause terrible cravings. Now, a new study finds that the taste alone of beer is sufficient to activate the brain's pleasure circuits.

The research provides support for this by demonstrating that even a small taste of beer raises dopamine levels in desire-related brain regions, especially in people with a family history of alcoholism.

The study was published in Neuropsychopharmacology, a journal that's a bit of a mouthful, no pun intended. It involved 49 male drinkers at an average age of 25. Out of the 29, seven were alcoholics and the remainder were either heavy or social drinkers. Twelve had a direct family member with alcoholism.

The experiment was led by David Kareken, the director of neuropsychology at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Participants received small doses of a compound that attaches to dopamine receptors in the brain, which are activated by alcohol and can produce feelings of desire and pleasure. Researchers tracked the changes in dopamine levels to discover where it was most abundant as the volunteers reacted neurologically to various tastes.

They then had PET images taken of their brain and spayed small spritzes of Gatorade, water or their favorite beer on their tongues. They rated the taste of the spray on its intensity and pleasure.

Due to the small amount of beer consumed, alcohol is ruled out as a cause of the change in dopamine levels. The variation in the brain chemicals could be attributed to the anticipation of the beer, which has been shown in prior research. This means the dopamine is actually released before drinking the beer, and is a result of the anticipation, rather than the actual consumption.

"Those individuals who had close family members diagnosed for alcoholism showed dopamine increases in response to beer taste, raising the question whether a heightened conditioning, or an unusual ability of conditioned rewards to increase dopamine activity, underlies the development of alcohol, and perhaps other drug, abuse," Dai Stephens, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, said in a statement released by Britain's Science Media Foundation.

The research didn't show a history of alcoholism having an effect on dopamine response in comparison to the alcoholics, which caused researchers to wonder if the dopamine sensitivity may not have developed yet in the study participants due to their age.

The study also doesn't answer the question as to whether dopamine is responsible for addictive behavior.

"There is a debate as to whether more or less dopamine release corresponds with addiction risk," the authors of the study write.

The study results do suggest that people with a family history of alcoholism have a greater dopamine response and that may lead to a greater desire for alcohol, though not necessarily to problem drinking.

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