Researchers have found that simply tasting beer, absent of its alcoholic effects, can affect the brain’s pleasure sensors.
A recent test involving 50 participants who were given small samples of a sports drink and beer proved that a neurotransmitter triggered by alcohol and other drugs was triggered simply by the taste of beer. Recipients of the sports drink were unaffected.
Dopamine is the brain’s way of giving reward, and the taste of beer does it for most people in the study. However, people with a family history of alcoholism were found to have more active dopamine activity when given a taste of beer than those who did not have a family history of alcoholism.
Health professionals have known for years that those who battle addiction can have strong responses to stimuli that doesn’t include physically ingesting the drug of choice. For example, catching a whiff of a chemical included in methamphetamine can trigger an emotional response in people addicted to or formerly addicted to the drug. Similarly, alcoholics who have spent a great deal of time in a pub can have a similar response by simply walking by one.
It’s all about sensory cues. And the taste of beer is a massive cue to some, according to the PET scans used in the study, which detects when dopamine receptors in the brain are stimulated. Researchers also tracked the subjects’ craving for beer after getting a small taste of it.
Most subjects reported a heightened craving for beer after being exposed to a sample, whereas the sports drink group, which actually tastes more pleasing in small doses, did not generate the same craving.