Taste Test May Identify Alcoholism Risk

Perception of sour, salty flavors may influence later behavior

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TUESDAY, June 17, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The answer to whether children of alcoholics will suffer the same fate may lie on their tongues.

While alcoholism appears to run in families, many children of alcoholic parents don't develop the disease. Rather, how the offspring of alcoholic fathers experience sour or salty tastes may be the factor that determines whether or not they become addicted to alcohol, a new study suggests.

Previous studies have established a link between an affinity for sweet tastes and alcohol addiction. This is the first large-scale effort to show that one's perception of sour and salty tastes may also play a role in predicting the development of the disease. It appears in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The researchers sought to replicate the intriguing findings of a Polish study, which showed that sons of alcoholic fathers tended to find salty and sour tastes more unpalatable than sons of nonalcoholic fathers.

In this study, the researchers recruited 112 nonalcoholic American participants who were roughly split between males and females.

After interviewing the subjects about their family history, the researchers learned that 45 had fathers who were alcoholics. while the remaining 67 had no paternal history of the disease.

Each of the participants tasted a series of salty and sour solutions in varying concentrations and rated each for intensity and pleasantness. The researchers found the subjects' reaction to the tastes mirrored the results of the Polish study.

"We replicated the Polish findings very closely in a different country, with males and females and with a sample size three times larger," says Dr. Henry R. Kranzler, co-author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

"Taste preferences may influence not the initial exposure but subsequent exposures. If you experience something that isn't pleasurable, you're less likely to repeat it," Kranzler says.

The study does not address, however, how one's perception of salty and sour tastes might specifically influence the risk for alcoholism because the subjects were all nonalcoholics. The researchers have currently no plans to follow up with the participants to see which ones actually develop the disease and whether their prognosis is linked to their taste perception.

However, the results suggest two possible associations, Kranzler says.

First, they could indicate that individuals with a familial history of alcoholism who possess unique taste characteristics are protected from alcoholism. By possessing an enhanced sensitivity to salty and sour flavors, they are put off by the taste of alcohol. The other possibility is that people with a paternal history of alcoholism may inherit genetic alterations in taste characteristics that put them at increased risk for alcoholism.

"A quantitative taste trait may be related to the amount of risk of becoming an alcoholic. This would greatly benefit prevention-intervention efforts," says Fulton T. Crews, a professor of pharmacology and psychiatry and director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Additional studies are needed to determine how quantitative and universal these finding are," he says.

More information

Learn more about the disease from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and the American Council on Alcoholism.

SOURCES: Henry R. Kranzler, M.D., professor, psychiatry, University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington; Fulton T. Crews, Ph.D., professor, pharmacology and psychiatry, and director, Center for Alcohol Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; June 2003 Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
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