Can The Mere Expectation Of Alcohol Boost Dopamine?

By Beth Leipholtz 06/06/18

A new study examined the dopamine release levels of people with a family history of alcoholism. 

young woman staring excitedly at a round of alcoholic drinks

Those with a history of alcohol-related issues in their families may produce more dopamine at the idea of a drink, a new study has found. 

The study indicates that people who have a history of alcohol use disorders in their family actually release more dopamine when presented with the prospect of a drink containing alcohol. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. 

For such individuals, the study found, the dopamine release is greater than for those who do not have a history of alcohol use disorder in the family or for those who have been diagnosed with it already. 

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, was fairly small. Researchers looked at 65 individuals, 34 of which had no alcohol use disorder in their families or themselves, 16 with a history of it in their family but without their own diagnosis, and 15 who had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. 

Each participant was given two drinks—one containing alcohol and one without. Participants were not told which drink they would be given first. But, as Bustle reports, “Those who received the placebo first could intuit that the alcoholic drink would be second. In other words, they were cued to expect alcohol.”

During this, researchers used a PET scan (an imaging technique) to monitor the levels of dopamine released as a response to the drinks. Because dopamine is connected to the reward center in the brain, its release is associated with things people enjoy. Bustle states that while all three groups in the study had similar dopamine-releasing reactions to the drink containing alcohol, results varied when it came to the non-alcoholic placebo. 

"We found that the FHP (family history positive) participants had a much more pronounced response to the placebo drink than the other groups, indicating that expectation of alcohol caused the FHP group to release more reward center dopamine," study author Lawrence Kegeles of Columbia University said, according to Bustle

This outcome implies that dopamine release could “reinforce alcohol consumption,” Bustle notes. This is especially true for those susceptible to alcohol use disorder.  

“This research finding exemplifies how advances in imaging brain chemistry using PET scanning can provide new insights into how differences in brain function in people with a family history of alcoholism can explain their own potential for addiction,” said Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging editor Dr. Cameron Carter, according to Bustle

Study participants were not followed up with, Bustle notes, so it is unknown if the results of this study did predict alcohol use disorder in their futures.  

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.