A new study says there may be a relationship between a preference for sweet drinks and a risk of developing alcoholism, but at least one prominent neurologist doesn't buy it.
In a study to be published in December 2013 in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, author Dr. David A. Kareken reports that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show recent drinking stimulates the same area of the brain (above the eyes) as consuming intensely sweet drinks.
“Our own goal is to use this approach to determine how the brain’s reward systems are altered as a consequence of risk factors for alcoholism,” Kareken told Heathline. “However, other researchers have also found that an alcoholic’s sweet preference can help predict response to a treatment (the drug naltrexone) that targets the brain’s opioid system—a system that responds to both alcohol and sugar.”
While previous human and animal research has found a link between a preference for both sweet tastes and alcohol intoxication, Kareken, deputy director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Center and a professor in the department of neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, believes this is the first study to examine the human brain mechanism behind this link.
"While much more research needs to be done to truly understand the commonalities between sweet-liking and alcoholism, and while alcoholism itself is likely the product of several mechanisms, our findings may implicate a particular brain region that is more generally involved in coding for the value of 'primary' rewards such as pleasures," Kareken said in a news release.
"In a more practical sense, the findings are compelling evidence that the brain response to an intensely sweet taste may be used in future research to test for differences in the reward circuits of those at risk for alcoholism," he added. "This may be particularly useful since alcohol itself is not an easy drug to work with in this kind of human imaging, and since alcohol exposure is not ethically appropriate for use in all at-risk subjects, or in subjects trying to abstain from drinking."
The 16 people who participated in Kareken's study consumed an average of 2.8 drinks per day. All were healthy, with a mean age of 26. None of the participants were known to be heavy drinkers.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Dr. Giulio Maria Pasinetti, director of the Center of Excellence in Novel Approaches to Neurodiagnostics & Neurotherapeutics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Healthline he enjoyed reading the study, but that it may be an example of how “good intentions can end up in poor science.”
He noted that the research sample was small and did not include any heavy drinkers. “If you are going to, say, wake in the morning and drink a Diet Coke or a real Coca-Cola, you shouldn't be concerned that one day you will become an alcoholic,” Pasinetti said.
Still, the study raised eyebrows at Alcoholic Justice, a watchdog group that keeps an eye on the alcohol industry.
Alcohol justice and similar groups around the nation have criticized the emergence in the past 10 years of so-called “Alcopops,” sugary, alcoholic drinks marketed to young people.
“While the new brain response study findings that excessive sweetness adds to the products' compelling desirability are interesting and help explain their attractiveness to young and underage drinkers, they come as no surprise,” said Michael J. Scippa, public affairs director of Alcohol Justice, in a statement to Healthline.
Kareken said he isn't sure whether his study supports that claim. “Certainly, many people do not like alcohol’s taste when first trying it,” he told Healthline. “Making an alcoholic drink more palatable could well make the drink appeal to a greater number of people. Whether a given individual’s preference for intensely sweet sensations interacts with a drink’s sweetness is something that has yet to be studied in any detail.”