Why a sweet tooth may be linked to alcoholism

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A preference for sweet treats might be associated with binge drinking and alcoholism, a new study reveals.

Researchers at the Indiana Alcohol Research Center and Indiana University School of Medicine found that participants with a sweet tooth were likely to drink more alcohol – an association that has to do with how the brain's left orbitofrontal area responds to pleasure and reward.

Brain scans reveal activity

For the study, 16 young adults were monitored using MRI technology. Their brains were scanned while they drank either plain water or a sweet mixture of sugar and water. Then the researchers compared the activity to the participants' drinking patters.

"The trend was such that those who drank more alcohol on drinking days had stronger left orbitofrontal responses to the intensely sweet water,” study author David Kareken, deputy director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center and a professor in the department of neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine, said in a press release.

Participants who reported liking the sugar water also had stronger associations with binge drinking, suggesting that both brain activity and preference were indicators for the correlation.

Implications

Researchers said the findings may point to risk factors for alcoholism – specifically, that a strong preference for sweets might predict a greater danger for developing the disease.

And while other studies have linked sugar cravings to alcoholism, Kareken said this is the first study to explore the actual brain mechanisms that might be responsible for this link:

While much more research needs to be done to truly understand the commonalities between sweet-liking and alcoholism, and while alcoholism itself is likely the product of several mechanisms, our findings may implicate a particular brain region that is more generally involved in coding for the value of 'primary' rewards such as pleasures.

Since using alcohol on subjects can pose ethical and medical dilemmas – especially for alcoholics in recovery – using sweets to examine brain activity as it relates to alcoholism may be helpful, Kareken concluded.

The study is published in the online edition of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Source: Lansing State Journal

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