The Taste of Beer Alone Tickles Our Brain’s Reward Center

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It has been known for some time that the alcohol content of beer triggers a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain, and dopamine is associated with a sense of reward.

Researchers have now discovered that swallowing some beer – too little to cause intoxication – also sets off a dopamine release in the reward area of men’s brains. This is especially true for those who have close alcoholic relatives.

Although other dopamine release cues besides intoxication have been discovered, no one had studied whether the taste of beer prompts a flood of dopamine in our neural reward center until some curious scientists in Indiana decided to check it out.

Tracking the Dopamine

Researchers at the Indiana Alcohol Research Center injected a radioactive drug, one that binds to dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward center, into 49 healthy male volunteers.

Using PET scans, researchers could then measure the dopamine docking on the receptors after the study subjects drank either a small amount of beer or Gatorade.

Findings

  1. All of the men indicated that the taste of beer made them desire to drink more, while the taste of Gatorade, as anticipated, did not cause them to want alcohol.
  2. The taste of beer caused a release of dopamine in the subjects' ventral striatum – a brain area associated with reward.
  3. Those subjects with first-degree alcoholic relations (e.g., parent, sibling) had a larger release of dopamine than those men more distantly related to alcoholics, or those who did not have a family history of alcoholism.

Implications of the Study

The study is one of several supporting a hypothesis that instead of making intoxication more pleasurable, dopamine increases an individual’s drive to seek the reward (intoxication) by continuing to drink.

“It’s a very nice finding that contributes to our understanding of how dopamine contributes to addictive urges,” said University of Michigan neuroscientist Kent Berridge. “In this case, the research suggests that dopamine is making taste a stronger incentive, it makes [the beer taste] more tempting.”

Also, the increased dopamine response in those at greater risk of alcoholism suggests that a reward system associating cues like flavor with a beer’s reward of intoxication may influence an individual toward drug-seeking behavior. It will take more study to determine how predictive this factor actually is.

Source: The Scientist

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