The study found that a beer’s flavor alone, without any effect from alcohol, can lead the brain to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and reward. It is also associated with drinking and drug abuse.
Previous research suggests that sensory cues (smells and tastes) associated with drug intoxication can provoke dopamine transmission.
Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis set out to measure the dopamine response from the taste of beer. They tested 49 men who tasted their preferred beer and Gatorade. The liquids were delivered in a small amount which enabled the men to taste the beer without causing a detectable blood-alcohol level.
Positron emission tomography scans showed significantly more dopamine activity after tasting the beer than after tasting the 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,” says David Kareken, a senior author of the study.
The dopamine response was most pronounced in the men with a family history of alcoholism.