Flavor is one of the most common classically conditioned alcohol-associated cues.7 The question is whether flavor can independently trigger dopamine release, or whether that release is mediated through the biochemical effects of ethanol on the nucleus accumbens.

A recent study conducted by a group of researchers at the Department of Neurology, Indiana School of Medicine may provide an answer to this question, suggesting that the mere taste of alcohol is enough to trigger dopamine release in the brain.7

The researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to scan the brains of 49 adult male beer drinkers, whom they divided into three groups: those with a family history of alcoholism, those without a family history of alcoholism, and those who did not know their family history. Participants received two PET scans—one after ingesting 15mL of their favorite brand of beer and one after ingesting 15mL of Gatorade® over a 15-minute period. The amount of alcohol administered was not sufficient to induce intoxication.

The scans showed significantly more dopamine activity following the taste of beer than following the taste of Gatorade®, and the effect was significantly greater among participants with a family history of alcoholism. Participants also reported increased beer craving after tasting beer, without comparable responses after tasting Gatorade® —although participants rated the sports drink as tasting more pleasant than beer.

The authors concluded, “The results demonstrate for the first time the important role of an alcoholic drink’s flavor, absent alcohol’s pharmacological effects, in human ventral striatal dopamine release, as well as how dopamine transmission may be related to familial alcoholism.” They added that “striatal dopamine responses to salient alcohol cues may . . . be an inherited risk factor for alcoholism.”

The role of flavor in dopamine release may also explain the vulnerability of alcoholics to relapse when exposed to “the first drink,” even after long-term abstinence. Alcoholism-related craving and compulsion that are provoked by “the first drink” may be involved in the pathogenesis of alcohol dependence and the frequent relapses of alcohol dependent patients.9

Understanding the role of flavor, among other non-biochemically mediated cues, may contribute to the development and refining of interventions aimed at alcohol cravings in vulnerable individuals—especially those with a family history of alcoholism.