Taste of Beer May Trigger Brain’s Reward Center, Stimulate Alcohol Craving

The taste of beer may trigger the brain’s reward system and cause a craving for more alcohol, researchers from Indiana University report.

They found men who were given small amounts of their preferred brand of beer felt a desire to drink. This desire was associated with the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

People who had parents or a sibling with alcoholism released a greater amount of dopamine, HealthDay reports.

“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,” lead researcher David A. Kareken, PhD, said in a news release. He noted the stronger effect of beer in people with close alcoholic relatives suggests this response may be an inherited risk factor for alcoholism.

The study included 49 men, who underwent two brain scans—one when they drank half an ounce of beer over 15 minutes, and another when they drank Gatorade. The beer significantly increased men’s desire to drink. The brain scans showed significantly more dopamine activity after the men tasted the beer, compared with Gatorade. The results were greater in those with a family history of alcoholism.

The study appears in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

2 Responses to Taste of Beer May Trigger Brain’s Reward Center, Stimulate Alcohol Craving

  1. Robert J. Chapman, PhD | April 16, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Although an interesting bit of information…and the type the media find provocative enough to catapult to newsworthy status…one need take care before reading too much into this report.

    It would seem that the message here is that “something in beer” stimulates the brain’s “reward center” resulting in craving, but there are likely additional explanations, less prone to vilifying the substance while nonetheless explaining the phenomenon. If “the beer” itself can explain this phenomenon, we should expect craving from one’s first sip or one’s “preferred brand” being unrelated to the phenomenon. As the article reports, it is when men take that sip of their “preferred brand” that we see the onset of craving. This does not ring true, however, when considering while “brand X” does this for John Jones, the same brand does not elicit desire for Bob White who prefers brand “Y.”

    As any student in Stat 101 will tell you, it is unwise to assign causality in the presence of a demonstrable correlation, positive of negative. It is more likely that the “desire” reported, although affected by the release of dopamine in the brain, is more likely the result of classical conditioning than anything inherent in “the beer.” Like Pavlov’s dogs that “learned” to anticipate food—and salivate accordingly—when hearing the bell that preceded its delivery, so is it the taste of the beer—if not the other environmental cues associated with taking that taste of beer—that evokes the release of the reported dopamine.

    Classical conditioning is a powerful form of learning. Research is now showing that changes in one’s usually environment when consuming alcohol or other drug can result in an overdose, even when the individual consumes his or her “usual amount” of a preferred drug. Because the body comes to anticipate the ingestion of a particular quantity of drug, it prepares for that ingestion prior to consumption. Consequently, the individual is able to assuage the toxic effect of one’s “usual consumption” and avoid overdose. In essence, tolerance to a drug is affected by classical conditioning

    In a new environment, however, one devoid of these cues of pending consumption, the body is unprepared for the dosage consumed, resulting in a more pronounced intoxication if not overdose – see this 2001 paper on Pavlovian (Classical) Conditioning and overdose – http://people.whitman.edu/~herbrawt/classes/390/Siegel.pdf

    Back to the original story…although the correlation between “the taste of a preferred beer” and “a desire” to drink is likely quite accurate, it is ill advised to assume that there is something chemical or unique to the beer consumed that explains or “causes” the phenomenon.

  2. Keith Burns | April 17, 2013 at 6:17 am

    Dr. Robert Chapman has it absolutely right. I was about to write along a vey similar vein but he has put it far more eloquently and academically than I could possibly do. Thos of us who work with addicts have alays been aware of the family connection and I found this element of more interest in support of what has been clear to most people in this field for years; addiction runs in families, but this comes down more on the side of genetics rather than environment……..possibly????
    But why only trial men? Don’t women drink beer? Was there some form of prejudgement about beer? Not very scientific, is it?

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