Just the taste of an alcoholic drink can trigger dopamine release in the brain, according to researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, involved using positron emission tomography, or PET scans among 49 men who initially tasted beer and then tasted gatorade. The results of the scans revealed that dopamine activity was significantly greater when the men tasted beer as opposed to the gatorade.

In addition the researchers noted that that dopamine activity was higher among those with a history of alcoholism in their family.

David A. Kareken, Ph.D., professor of neurology at the IU School of Medicine and the deputy director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center, said:

“We believe this is the first experiment in humans to show that the taste of an alcoholic drink alone, without any intoxicating effect from the alcohol, can elicit this dopamine activity in the brain’s reward centers.”

Dr Kareken said that the increased release of dopamine in response to beer consumption could be an inherited risk factor for alcoholism.

Previous research has associated dopamine to the consumption of various different drugs, but there are many different interpretations of the neurotransmitter’s role. It is known that certain sensory cues, such as smell or taste, contribute to cravings in alcoholics. In fact, cravings can lead to possible relapse in alcoholics trying to avoid drinking.

Cravings are responsible for most cases of people unable to break an addiction. A previous survey revealed that around nine out of ten smokers (87 percent) who quit smoking started again because of everyday “situational cravings” and more than three- quarters of smokers (80 percent) believe they could quit if they were able to get through their cravings.

Belgian beer glass
When the participants drank only a small amount of beer their dopamine activity increased.

The participants were only given a very small amount of beer over a fifteen minute period without there being any noticeable intoxicating effect.

PET scans were carried out to target the dopamine receptors which allowed the researchers to evaluate the extent of dopamine activity in the brain after tasting the drinks.

Even though most of the participants thought that gatorade tasted better than beer, more of them experienced an increased craving for beer after tasting it.

According to a previous study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research genetic variations in taste influence the sensations from alcoholic beverages and could be one of the genetic factors that interact with environmental factors to determine risk of excess alcohol consumption.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist