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
Right-handedness was required because most people have language capacity on the left side of the brain, and the researchers wanted to make sure that any differences between the men would not interfere with the study, Kareken explained. Data about ethnicity or social or economic level was not collected.
The participants were tested while tasting 15 milliliters (about half an ounce) of the beer they usually drank, and also while tasting Gatorade.
The beer flavor was mixed with a small amount of alcohol -- not enough to cause a pharmacological effect -- to help make sure the participants were experiencing something close to what they would sense when drinking beer, Kareken explained.
The researchers found that, compared to Gatorade, beer flavor significantly increased a man's self-reported desire to drink, and the scans showed that the alcohol-associated flavor induced the release of dopamine in the brain's striatum region. The association with dopamine release was greatest in those with parents and siblings who were alcoholics.
Family history of alcoholism is one of the best ways to assess genetic risk, explained Kareken. "Alcoholism isn't a simple autosomal dominant genetic mechanism." (If a disease is autosomal dominant, it means you only need to get the abnormal gene from one parent to inherit the disease.) "There are probably many, many genes that predispose people through different pathways to eventually have alcoholism."
Dr. Scott Krakower, medical director of the Mineola Community Treatment Center in Mineola, N.Y., said the research makes sense.
"It's one of the first pieces of research that tests whether the flavor of something affects behavior," he said. "People tell me they can't be around alcohol at all because it immediately triggers them to start drinking," Krakower added.
"The research may change some physicians' advice to patients if they're aware there's an exponential increase in drinking, just due to the flavor of the drink," Krakower said. "We really promote complete abstinence; otherwise it's a slippery slope for people with a history of alcoholism."