Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003

In brief


Alcohol's sight and smell cues increase consumption
Print version: page 14

The scent and sight cues generated from a mug of beer increase a drinker's likelihood of wanting more beer, according to a study published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology (Vol. 11, No. 4).

Given a glass of beer to taste and then the option of drinking more, a set of beer drinkers who were prevented from seeing or smelling the beer consumed less than a group whose senses were not blocked, says psychologist Kenneth Perkins, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Eighty young beer drinkers from a university community were asked to drink a 3-ounce beer sample in either an opaque glass--which prevented them from seeing the beer--or a clear glass. And, because taste is highly dependent on smell, half of the participants wore a nose plug that blocked both their ability to smell and taste the beer, Perkins says.

Before and during the alcohol consumption, the researchers also asked participants to evaluate the quality of the beer, indicate their desire for more beer and measure their mood. The group whose perceptions of sight and smell were blocked rated the quality of the beer much lower than the other group.

After the 3-ounce sample, Perkins and his colleagues gave participants 12 ounces of beer in the same glass and the option of having it refilled twice. They were asked to drink as much of it as they liked, and the researchers measured whatever remained. Those with blocked senses consumed 15 percent less beer--significantly less than the control group, Perkins says.

"The study shows that removing these stimuli can reduce subjective and reinforcing effects of an alcoholic beverage, demonstrating that factors other than the pharmacological effects of alcohol are important for understanding alcohol consumption," Perkins says.

The study found a weaker link to sensory cues than previous sensory research on cocaine and tobacco use, Perkins notes. That finding indicates that, although significant, sight and smell cues for alcohol may not be particularly salient in comparison, he adds.

"Virtually everyone, even alcoholics, consumes many beverages that do not contain alcohol--perhaps limiting the direct association between beverage drinking and alcohol effects," Perkins says. "By contrast, many of the stimuli accompanying cigarette smoking may be narrowly associated with the intake of nicotine and not linked to any other, more regular, behavior."

Despite the indirect link, Perkins says teaching abusers the visual and olfactory impacts of alcohol might be a way to contribute to treatment of alcohol addiction.

"In addition to those implications for treatment, the possibility of a strong role for sensory stimuli in preventing the onset of alcohol consumption in teens warrants some research attention," he adds. "It could help in developing improved alcohol prevention efforts."


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