Just a Spoonful of Beer Helps the Pleasure Chemicals Spike

beer1Just a quick follow-up post today to yesterday’s article on how beer makes us creative problem solving geniuses. Another study recently popped up on my radar talking about how just the mere taste of alcohol – and beer in particular – can stimulate the reward zones of our brains in an intriguing way.

By now you’ve probably heard of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has been oversimplified to the point of being called the “pleasure” drug. In short, when something happens to us that we like, dopamine is released in the brain and causes us to get all warm and fuzzy. Of course this is a grossly inadequate description of a very complicated biochemical interaction, but I’ll let it slide for the moment.

PET scan example

PET scan example

A recent study from Indiana University has discovered that the mere taste of libations is enough to stimulate our reward-pleasure zones of neural activity. The experiment brought in 49 men and stuck them in a PET scanner twice. The first time, a miniscule amount of their beer of choice was sprayed into their mouth; it wasn’t enough to have any alcoholic effects, but was enough to get their taste buds dancing. In the second trial, the same procedure was followed, except that the beer was replaced by Gatorade.

beer3The researchers watched the patients’ brains light up like Christmas trees. Except there was a difference – Gatorade’s effect was like your grandmother’s fake spruce while beer’s was like Clark Griswold’s fire hazard. The implication is that the mere taste of beer is enough to get our neurotransmitters rolling in the reward zone in a way that mere sugar water never can. And it doesn’t even require the pleasant buzz accompanying the great taste.

While it’s an intriguing study, I have to ask, is Gatorade really all that equivalent to your favorite beer? I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like Gatorade that much, so I wouldn’t expect it to have all that large of an affect on my dopamine release. Meanwhile it’s being compared to one of your favorite beverages of all-time.

Seem a little flawed to you?

As a control, I’d really like to see the experiment repeated with other consumables that people get cravings for. How about a milkshake or a nice piece of cheesecake? Might those sugar and carb bombs have a similar affect to your pleasure neurons as a great tasting beer?

Now this could compete with beer in my dopamine-laden brain.

Now this could compete with beer in my dopamine-laden brain.

While I offer criticism, there is one other piece of the puzzle that does speak to actual intriguing results. According to the experiments, those individuals with alcoholism in their families had their dopamine release levels climb higher than those who don’t. That could be an indicator of one mechanism that leads to alcoholism – just a mere sip of the stuff sends some people’s brains to Risa before the good feelings even start flowing.

Still, there obviously needs to be some more work done here.

The study, “Beer flavor provokes striatal dopamine release in male drinkers: Mediation by family history of alcoholism,” was published in Neuropsychopharmacology by Indiana University’s Brandon Oberlin, Mario Dzemidzic, Stella Tran, Christina Soeurt, Daniel Albrecht, Karmen Yoder, and David Kareken.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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