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Article Summary

Alcoholism Linked to Sweet Tooth

Can a child's sweet tooth predict a tendency toward alcoholism in later life?

Researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill believe that a craving for sweets and the urge to drink may stem from the same gene.

Their study found that 19 pairs of twin brothers shared a similar liking for sweets and alcohol despite having quite different life experiences.

"Several years ago, we found the first clinical evidence linking sweet liking with alcoholism in a study that involved subjects tasting a wide range of concentrations of table sugar in water," said Dr. David H. Overstreet, associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC-CH School of Medicine, in a news release. "In this new study, we found that despite different life experiences, twin brothers continue to share sweet and alcohol preferences."

Craving for Sweets

"The twin study also allowed us to collect additional information about the association between different characteristics of sweet liking and alcohol intake in non-alcoholic subjects since none of our twins were alcoholics," Overstreet said.

"For example, those individuals who reported drinking more alcohol on occasion and having more alcohol-related problems also had problems with controlling how many sweets they ate," he said. "They were more likely to report urges to eat sweets and craving for them. They also were more likely to report this craving when they were nervous or depressed, and they believed eating sweets made them feel better."

In earlier studies, scientists asked 20 abstinent alcoholic men and 37 non-alcoholic men to taste five sugar solutions. The solutions ranged from not sweet at all to very sweet. Sixty-five percent of alcoholics preferred the sweetest solution compared to only 16 percent of non-alcoholics.

Dr. Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy said, "Sweet liking is a basic pleasurable reaction that may be seen in humans and other mammals within minutes after birth. Disturbance in pleasurable response to sweets may reflect a dysfunction in the brain's system of positive reinforcement, which is also involved in development of alcoholism."

Developing a Test

"Our findings are interesting given the advice found in the early writings of Alcoholics Anonymous that eating and drinking sweets allays the urge to drink," said Kampov-Polevoy, a physician instrumental in bringing the AA program to the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The researchers hope to design a test to predict who is at greatest risk of developing alcoholism.

"Perhaps a benign and inexpensive sweet test, which takes only 10 minutes to perform, may be a first step in developing such a test," he said. "This test could be used to screen youngsters to detect those with a predisposition to alcoholism, which might allow early education and prevention rather than waiting until alcoholism develops."

"Obviously, most people like sweets and most will not become alcoholics," Kampov-Polevoy said. "Alcoholics, however, like stronger concentrations, and such a test may help us better understand who might be at risk of alcohol dependence."

Further study of the effects of sweets on alcohol intake may help develop better treatments for alcoholism, such as special diets for recovering alcoholics, and in understanding the genetic risk for alcoholism in humans, Overstreet said.

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