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Taste Test May Identify Alcoholism Risk

Taste Perception of Sour and Salty May Be a Marker

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Updated February 14, 2014

Individuals with a family history of alcoholism are known to be at greater risk of developing the disorder than those without such a family history. In order to pinpoint these individuals, researchers are searching for "markers" of alcoholism risk. Both animal and some human studies have shown an association between sweet preference and excessive alcohol intake.

A study in the June 2003 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research extends this research, finding that individuals with a positive paternal history (PHP) of alcoholism rate salty solutions as less pleasurable and sour solutions as more intense and less pleasurable than individuals with a negative paternal history (PHN) of alcoholism.

Children of Alcoholics

"Administering taste tests to offspring of alcoholics, those who have not yet developed alcoholism, is a way to examine taste perception without the possible interference of taste alterations that might occur in heavy drinkers," said Henry R. Kranzler, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center and corresponding author for the study. "As research in this area has moved from evaluating alcoholics to assessing offspring of alcoholics, new studies have also expanded the investigation of taste perception to include salty, sour, and bitter tastes."

"Taste preference is an innate reaction that may be detected within minutes after birth," added Alexei B. Kampov-Polevoy, assistant professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "The most consistent finding that links taste preference and alcohol consumption (has been in animals,) such as rats, mice and monkeys, that are prone to [both] excessive consumption of alcohol - in quantities sufficient for the development of physical dependence - and of sweet solutions, sometimes quadrupling their normal daily fluid intake." To date, however, not all studies of alcohol and sweet preference have yielded consistent findings.

Salty and Sour Tastes

For this study, researchers recruited 112 non-alcoholic participants (62 females, 50 males), between the ages of 18 and 40, from other studies of alcoholism risk and through advertisements. Family history interviews were used to identify psychiatric disorders and alcohol dependence among first-degree family members. Of the 112, 45 were considered PHP (32 females, 13 males), 67 were PHN.

All participants were given a series of salty and sour solutions in varying concentrations, and asked to rate each for intensity and pleasantness.

Unique Taste Perception

"PHP individuals rated the salty solutions as less pleasurable than PHN subjects," said Kranzler. "They also experienced the sour stimulus as more intense and less pleasurable than PHN subjects. These findings extend previous research by demonstrating the phenomenon of different taste characteristics among a larger and more diverse sample, and also support preliminary results from a study in Poland.

"We interpret these findings as evidence of unique taste perception among individuals with a paternal history of alcoholism compared to those without such a history."

Part Two - Study's Implications

Source: University of Connecticut Health Center.

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