This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.


September 15, 2003

Taste Buds May Be Linked To Risk
Of Alcoholism, Says Researcher

Individuals with a paternal history of alcoholism have unique taste characteristics, according to a study published by Dr. Henry Kranzler, professor of psychiatry. The finding is significant because it may one day help identify those who are at greater risk of developing the disorder.

Image: Henry Kranzler

Dr. Henry Kranzler, a professor of psychiatry at the Health Center, has identified taste perception as a possible marker to identify those most at risk of developing alcoholism.

Photo by Peter Morenus

"There is general agreement that individuals with a family history of alcoholism are at greater risk for developing it themselves, but we still don't know exactly how the risk is transmitted from parent to child," says Kranzler. "Efforts to find genes for alcoholism have had only limited success. Consequently, researchers have turned their efforts to finding markers to identify individuals most at risk of developing alcoholism; and one of those markers may well be taste.

"Ultimately, these markers may help children of alcoholics who choose to drink alcohol gauge their risk of developing the disorder," he adds. "In addition, the markers may help to focus the search for specific genes involved in transmitting risk for the disorder."

People with an alcoholic father taste sour and salty things differently than do people with no family history of the disease, according to the study, which was published in the June issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

For the study, Kranzler and graduate student Kristen Sandstrom interviewed 112 non-alcoholic subjects between the ages of 18 and 40 about their reactions to salty and sour substances. The 45 subjects whose fathers were alcoholics expressed more intense reactions to sour tastes and rated salty tastes as less pleasant than the offspring of non-alcoholics.

(People with alcoholic mothers were excluded from the study to avoid the potential for in utero exposure to alcohol that might confound test results.)

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

The results of the study confirm earlier findings by a group of Polish researchers.

"We extended the findings by tripling the size of the sample, which makes it less likely the findings occurred by chance, and by including a large proportion of women," says Kranzler. By including women, the researchers were able to conclude that, overall, the findings apply equally to both sexes.

"It's possible that taste perception may contribute to the risk for alcohol dependence, either by increasing or decreasing the taste appeal of alcoholic beverages," says Kranzler. "There is some evidence that alcoholic beverages produce a sour-like taste, so increased sensitivity may make people more sensitive to the taste qualities of alcohol."

It's also possible taste characteristics play a role in determining the time from the first taste of alcohol to regular drinking and, among those who drink regularly, the likelihood of progressing to heavy drinking.

"Perhaps individuals with certain taste sensitivities and preferences progress to regular drinking earlier and may also be at greater risk of increasing to heavy drinking," he says.

"The findings from the study are still at a basic stage of development, so the implications are not yet clear," says Kranzler. "A long-term, prospective study of the effects of taste characteristics on drinking behavior would be most useful, but such studies are time-consuming and costly.

"We plan to extend the research," adds Kranzler, "by studying the taste characteristics of alcoholics, to determine whether the taste associations among non-alcoholics reflect increased or decreased risk for alcoholism."

Issue Index