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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Beer's Taste May Trigger Urge to Get Drunk

Study found flavor alone activated brain's reward center; effect stronger with family history of alcoholism

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Barbara Bronson Gray

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, April 15 (HealthDay News) -- Just as the smell of freshly brewed coffee may compel you to pour a steaming cup of java, a small taste of beer may activate part of your brain's reward system and trigger the urge for more, a new study suggests.

Researchers have discovered that sensory cues associated with drinking may stimulate certain parts of the brain and cause a craving for more alcohol. Giving people a very small amount of the brand of beer they most frequently consume produced a desire to drink that was correlated with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward-and-pleasure centers.

The study also showed that the amount of dopamine released was greater in those who had parents or siblings with alcoholism.

"This is the first human demonstration that a stimulus that is reliably associated with alcohol association -- that flavor alone, without any significant amount of alcohol -- is able to induce a dopamine response," said study author David Kareken, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

The research, published in the April 15 issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, validates some findings from earlier animal studies, making them more relevant to understanding what's happening in people, Kareken said. "We have a long history of developing alcohol-preferring rats and mice, and the last 20 years of research does show there are neurotransmitters that are distinguishable in [rats and mice] that prefer alcohol."

Kareken said the study also may help reduce the stigma of alcoholism. "This is really quite strong evidence that there are genetic factors that change the brain's chemistry and may act as risk factors for dependence," he explained.

For the study, 49 right-handed men in good physical and mental health, with a mean age of 25, underwent two brain scans. None of the participants had a history of significant drug or tobacco use, although all of them expressed a preference for drinking beer (as opposed to other alcoholic drinks). Women were excluded from the study because it was difficult to find potential participants who preferred beer and met the criteria for inclusion in the study.

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