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Beer, Gatorade and Dopamine: How the alcoholic brain works

beercrpdA friend sent me an article this weekend about a study done by the Indiana Alcohol Research Center at Indiana University: “Taste of beer, without effect of alcohol, triggers dopamine release in the brain.”

“Using positron emission tomography, or PET, the researchers tested 49 men with two scans, one in which they tasted beer and the second in which they tasted Gatorade. They were looking for evidence of increased levels of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter. 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.”

Research has already linked dopamine to drug and alcohol use but apparently 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, Ph.D., professor of neurology at the IU School of Medicine and the deputy director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center.

How did they do this study: Forty-nine men tasted their preferred beer and Gatorade.  Small amounts of the beer and Gatorade were sprayed into the their mouths. The amounts were so small – 15 milliliters over 15 minutes – that the men could taste the beer without causing a detectable blood-alcohol level.

Here’s the really interesting part for us alcoholics: “The stronger effect in participants with close alcoholic relatives suggests that the release of dopamine in response to such alcohol-related cues may be an inherited risk factor for alcoholism, Dr. Kareken said.” Results of the study were published online Monday by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Here’s the really interesting part for for us women alcoholics: The study wasn’t done on women. Maybe the results would be the same. However, 54-years on this planet has taught me that  a woman’s brain work differently than a man’s brain.

Could you do the study again on women and perhaps using Chardonnay and hot chocolate? Or champagne and  lemonade?

I have to wonder how much of a role psychology played in this study. For a man, his favorite beer is likely to evoke memories of steak on the barbecue or watching the Green Bay Packers crush the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV (Go Packers!). I know that released some dopamine in my brain. Gatorade, on the other hand, reminds me of sweat, a pounding heart and getting my ass kicked at spin class. An endorphin rush, yes, but dopamine? I think not.

Spray some chardonnay in the back of my throat (which isn’t going to happen because I’ve been sober almost 15 years), and I’m going to think a candle-light bath with Billie Holiday singing  in the background. Spritz some champagne in my mouth and I’m going to think wedding toasts and New Year’s Eve.

So, what I’m wondering is…couldn’t the memory of a taste associated with a pleasant or unpleasant event skew the results?

I’m an alcoholic but beer was not my preferred libation of choice – although I did train my dog to jump up and grab a lime off our lime tree for my Corona. I can sit here, too, and get a rush thinking about sipping hot chocolate high in the mountains while taking a break from skiing.

I don’t know if any of this really matters. It’s just something that’s been bugging me since I read about this study. I’m still a recovered alcoholic no matter.

The important thing is that there are researchers out there trying to figure out how the brains of addicts and alcoholics work – research that has been overlooked for many, many years. So God bless the researchers who did this study. Keep at it. Maybe someday you can figure out what causes these terrible illnesses.

In the meantime, Go Packers!

Beer photo available from Shutterstock

Beer, Gatorade and Dopamine: How the alcoholic brain works

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2019). Beer, Gatorade and Dopamine: How the alcoholic brain works. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2019
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