A further piece of alcohol’s feel-good puzzle falls into place.
A further piece of alcohol’s feel-good puzzle falls woozily into place.
German chemists have discovered that beer can make us feel good. Hallelujah! Yes, we already knew that; and it can also make us sad. One of the main reasons alcohol makes us happy is that the ethanol it contains (the “alcohol”) triggers the release of endorphins in our nucleus accumbens. Endorphins are our feel-good chemicals. Unfortunately, people who drink more and more regularly get a bigger hit from the endorphins released through drinking – they’ve adapted to feel alcohol as being more pleasant.
But the German chemists aren’t talking about ethanol. They have latched onto something called hordenine. It is an alkaloid related to chemicals that can affect the adrenal system, which produces hormones that keep us ticking along. Hordenine was given that name because it was found in the early 1900s in hordeum vulgare seeds – barley. And what gets used to make most beer?
Hordenine has been known about for more than a century. It is used in dietary and exercise supplements on the basis of claims that it can speed up blood circulation and inhibit digestion. What the German chemists discovered was that it can also act as a key for dopamine receptors. There are five of these, and it’s the second one, D2, that hordenine looks like a good fit for.
What does this mean? Here’s a crash course in brain function. The brain is a spongy mass of tissue, including billions of neurons – spidery strings of material separated from each other by microscopic gaps. Electrical impulses, a little like
Morse code, travel along the neurons and, depending on the message our Morse-code operators are tapping out, different things happen when they reach a synapse – one of the gaps between neurons.
To understand how neurons communicate with each other, imagine a bustling city. When an impulse buzzes at one house (a synapse), the door opens and a number of people hop out.
These people are our neurotransmitters. Each of them has a different-shaped key, and they visit nearby houses until they find a lock that fits (a receptor). Depending on which house they open, a variety of things happen – different patterns of electrical impulses or types of neurons influence specific psychological or physiological processes.
So, neurons communicate with each other to get things done using different keys. Dopamine has been found to play a part in several important processes, including reward and motivation.
When you do something well, or something good happens, dopamine is involved in producing the good feeling that follows. Hordenine looks a lot like a key for the D2 receptor, so you could speculate that when we have a cold one, we’re introducing a bunch of sneak thieves armed with a D2 key. Unlocking the D2 door, therefore, should have the effect of triggering our reward system, and making us feel good.
Which is fine in theory, but the science isn’t certain. For a start, it’s not clear if drinking a beer with enough hordenine in it means that hordenine makes it into the brain – a lot of things don’t.
Regardless, I’m sure you’re not going to start – or stop – drinking just on the possibility.
You could speculate that when we have a cold one, we’re introducing a bunch of sneak thieves armed with a D2 key.
A junction, or synapse, between two