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Taste of beer alone can trigger cravings in brain, study finds

FILE: Beer is poured into a mug.
German prosecutors say three men died after drinking heavily at a Christmas party and apparently passing out in a sauna. Getty Images

TORONTO – A new study finds that just the taste of beer alone—even without any intoxicating effect from the alcohol—can be enough to trigger alcohol cravings.

Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine gathered 49 male volunteers with drinking behaviours ranging from social to heaving drinking.

None of the participants were non-drinkers and some had a family history of alcoholism while others reported they did not.

READ MORE: Beer remains the alcoholic drink of choice for Canadians

Methodology and results

After giving the group a small sample of beer, researchers scanned the participants’ brains and found a notable release of dopamine—a chemical that aids in controlling the brain’s reward and pleasures systems.

“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,” said the study’s senior author, neuroscientist David Kareken in an interview with LiveScience.

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As a comparison, participants were also given Gatorade or water. In both cases, higher spikes of dopamine were in the brains of subjects when they drank the beer. The men also reported that they wanted more of the alcoholic beverage shortly after consuming the beer samples over the sports drink or water.

According to the study, participants were not given enough beer to induce intoxication and scans were taken before the alcohol would have time to get into their blood stream.

The study also revealed that the dopamine effect was stronger for men who had a family history of alcoholism.

What does this mean?

Researchers point out that while the idea of taste triggering the release of dopamine is not anything new, the results could potentially lead to a better understanding of the science behind alcoholism and why people can get addicted.

It is also important to note that while only men were involved in this study, researchers state further experiments are needed to determine the dopamine effect of alcohol on women and whether similar results would occur.

The study ‘Beer Flavor Provokes Striatal Dopamine Release in Male Drinkers: Mediation by Family History of Alcoholism’ is published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.