Psy­chol­ogy

A fur­ther piece of al­co­hol’s feel-good puz­zle falls into place.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Marc Wil­son

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

nerve cells.

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