I am not a big beer drinker but maybe it’s time to switch beverage. That is if you believe the new scientific findings that beer can lift your spirit. And that is not because of the alcohol content or good company. It is due to hordenine found in beer.
Let’s take a step back before you rush off to buy some beer.
I am sure though that you agree that some foods are more pleasurable than others. This effect is caused by the neurotransmitter dopamine — tempting foods stimulate the reward centre in the brain where the dopamine D2 receptor is located.
If not happy and smiling, pleasurable foods at least make you feel good. That is why we cannot stop eating when we have had enough. It is called hedonic hunger — the drive to eat for pleasure rather than to satisfy an actual biological need.
So which food components could be responsible for such an anomaly?
That’s what some German scientists at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg decided to find out. And being German they examined as many as 13,000 food components to see if any of them could stimulate the reward centre in the brain and make people feel good.
Now that could be an enormous task to test in a laboratory setting but help was at hand. The team used a virtual screening approach which is often used in pharmaceutical research. This process analyses food components in a computer simulation rather than in the laboratory. Using computer simulations means that a large range of substances can be investigated.
The objective was to find those molecules that could fit into the dopamine D2 receptor — rather like finding the right key for a lock. They identified a more reasonable 17 of the original 13,000 as possible candidates to be analysed further in laboratory experiments. In the laboratory setting they tested which molecules actually initiated a positive response through the dopamine D2 receptor.
This might sound simple, but in reality the scientists used a range of different and complicated laboratory methods to narrow down the initial list of substances. To their slight surprise the most promising results were obtained for hordenine, a substance present in malted barley and beer.
Just like dopamine, hordenine stimulates the dopamine D2 receptor, however it uses a different signalling pathway. In contrast with dopamine, hordenine activates the receptor solely through G proteins, potentially leading to a more prolonged effect on the reward centre of the brain.
Before you get too carried away, a word of warning. Although the findings are promising it is not yet clear if hordenine levels in beer are sufficient to have a significant effect on the reward centre.
But why should that spoil a good news story?