Monday, April 15, 2013

Taste of beer is enough to get brain chemicals flowing

For most of us, beer is a convivial drink, but for some, it can be addicting. Alcoholism is an affliction in which a person has become physically dependent on an alcohol-containing drink, of which beer is an example. To understand alcoholism, one has to study the brain and its chemistry. For those that have become addicted to beer, the release of a brain chemical known as dopamine plays a large role in creating a physical dependency. Scientists from the Indiana University have studied what happens to the brain if people drink alcohol, and found that the act of drinking by itself is enough to trigger the release of dopamine.

With a technique known as positron emission tomography, the researchers scanned the brains of 49 people that had volunteered for the study. With this PET scan, two measurements were made: one while the participant was drinking beer, and a second one when the participant was drinking Gatorade, a sports drink. The scientists then looked for differences in the brain's chemical activity.

From the scans it became clear that the participants had a much higher dopamine release in the brain when drinking beer, when compared to drinking Gatorade. Interestingly, the dopamine release was found to be bigger in people from families associated with alcoholism. However, in the experimental procedure, they were only given 15mL of their favorite beer over a time period of 15 minutes. That means any effect of alcohol could not have been present yet in the blood.

With their experiment, the scientists showed that consumption of an alcoholic drink, without the actual effects of alcohol, can alter brain chemistry. Because dopamine has been associated with a variety of addictions, including substance abuse, the research is potentially beneficial for finding out how exactly beer sparks physical dependency. Because the participants also reported an increased craving for beer after consumption compared to Gatorade, it appears that there is more at work than just the alcohol.

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