Tasting beer may release pleasurable chemical in brain

The simple taste of beer, not influenced by alcohol itself, apparently triggers the release of the hormone dopamine, which controls the reward and pleasure centers of the brain.

The study at the Indiana University School of Medicine looked for evidence of increased levels of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter long associated with a alcohol and other drugs of abuse. Researchers used used positron emission tomography (PET) to test 49 men with two scans, one in which they tasted beer, and the second in which they tasted Gatorade. The results were published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

The scans showed significantly more dopamine activity following the taste of beer than the sports drink. Moreover, the effect was significantly greater among participants with a family history of alcoholism. “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 David A Kareken, professor of neurology at the IU School of Medicine and the deputy director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center.

Research for several decades has linked dopamine to the consumption of various drugs of abuse, although researchers have differing interpretations of the neurotransmitter’s role.

The study participants received a very small amount of their preferred beer over a 15-minute time period, enabling them to taste the beer without resulting in any detectable blood alcohol level or intoxicating effect.

“In addition to the PET scan results, participants reported an increased beer craving after tasting beer, without similar responses after tasting the sports drink – even though many thought the Gatorade actually tasted better,” said Brandon G Oberlin, first author of the paper.