To start off, let me begin by saying that i love drinking beer especially an Irish stout. Now, whenever i take a couple of sips, moments later there is always a distinct sensation of pleasure. Now urban legend would have it that the beer exudes a blend of aromas due to a blend of malt, hops and yeast which produces that sensation in us. Just take a look at the Beer Flavour Wheel below from Mark Dredge‘s upcoming book – Craft Beer World
Now scientists have known for a long time that the pleasurable sensation which alcohol produces in us is because of the release of a particular class of neurotransmitter called dopamine. This molecule is known is to act as reward for the brain and is associated with other tasks like sleeping, sex etc. So, now you might reasonably ask if we already know that then what’s new?? Well, what’s new here is a paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology titled – Beer Flavor Provokes Striatal Dopamine Release in Male Drinkers: Mediation by Family History of Alcoholism.
This paper published by David Kareken and other researchers of Indiana University tries to answer this question – As intoxication via alcohol leads to the release of dopamine, does the same thing happens when you take a sip of alcohol? Or the release of such reward molecules subject to intoxication alone? Now, answering this question would lead us towards a more complete explanation of the process of addiction towards alcohol and lead us to develop deterrents in the process.
So, what they did was to strap 49 men to a Positron emission tomography (PET) scanner after giving them a sip of beer to drink. The key idea here was to track the levels of various molecules in the brain which are released in response to the alcohol intake. To make the study more scientifically more sound and interesting, they chose the participants in varying levels of alcohol tolerance from, almost teetotalers to heavy drinkers. The delivery mechanism for the beer was completely automated to spray 15 millimeters only which ensured that any difference in levels of molecules observed wouldn’t be a by-product of intoxication.
Surprisingly, what they observed was when men tasted beer there was a significant release of dopamine when compared to tasting a mixture of gatorade + water. Incidentally the researchers also asked the participants whether they had any cravings for the drink they had been given and they were generally much higher after tasting beer than Gatorade or water. However, the amount of dopamine release was not random but was seen in higher levels in people with a history of alcoholism. The researchers believe that this could be a clue as to why some people are predisposed towards alcoholism—and why it’s more difficult for them to quit. The immediate release of dopamine from just a taste of beer would likely serve as a powerful mechanism that would drive their cravings, and this tendency towards experiencing a burst of pleasure might also be genetically inheritable. This could be part of the reason that people with a family history of alcoholism are twice as likely to experience alcoholism themselves.
This experiment shows that for a few unlucky people all it takes for alcoholism to develop is a sip of beer !!
For the rest, i say PROST !!
1). Neural response to alcohol stimuli in adolescents with alcohol use disorder, Tapert SF, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2003.
2). Influence of cue exposure on inhibitory control and brain activation in patients with alcohol dependence, Mainz V, Front Hum Neurosci, 2012.