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The Taste of Beer Is Enough to Elicit "Feel Good" Responses in the Brain

Update Date: Apr 15, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

The taste of beer, without any effect from alcohol itself, is enough to set off the brain's pleasure system, according to a new small study.

Scientists found that the taste of beer can trigger dopamine release in the brain. Experts say the latest finding is important because dopamine release has been associated with drinking and drug abuse.

Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine conducted positron emission tomography (PET) scans on 49 men.  The men were scanned twice: first to look at their brain activity when they tasted beer and then another time to look at their brain activity when they taste Gatorade.  The point of the study was to look for evidence of increased levels of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter long associated with alcohol and other drugs of abuse.

The findings published Monday by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, revealed that the taste of beer triggered significantly more dopamine activity than the taste of the Gatorade sports drink.

"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," 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 in a news release.

What's more, researchers found that the effect was significantly greater among participants with a family history of alcoholism.   The stronger dopamine release in participants with close alcoholic relatives suggest that dopamine release in response to alcohol-related cues may be an inherited risk factor for alcoholism, researchers explain.

Many experts believe dopamine plays a critical role in sparking cravings and relapse in recovering alcoholics and other drug abusers. Sensory cues such as tastes, smells to the sight of a bar have long been known to trigger cravings and induce treatment relapse in recovering alcoholics.  And while numerous studies have linked dopamine to the consumption of various drugs, experts still have differing interpretations of the neurotransmitter's role.

In the study, participants were given a very small amount (15 milliliters) of their preferred beer over a 15-minutes time period.  Researchers said by doing this it enables participants to taste the beer without experiencing an intoxicating effect or rise in their blood alcohol levels. Researchers then used PET scans to look at changes in dopamine levels occurring after the participants tasted the beverages.

Researchers noted that in addition to the PET scan results, participants reported an increased craving for beer after tasting beer.  However, participants did not report an increased craving for Gatorade after tasting the sports drink, even though many of them thought the Gatorade actually tasted better.

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