Health Watch: Why Does Wine Make Us Happy? It's All in Our Head

Plus, a resveratrol treatment that could prevent lung cancer
Health Watch: Why Does Wine Make Us Happy? It's All in Our Head
Scientists found that wine triggers reactions in our brain that make us happy. (istockphotos)
Oct 31, 2018

There's a scientific explanation for why drinking a glass of wine makes you happy (and no, it's not just because it's delicious): Alcohol consumption triggers the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain, which creates those pleasant feelings that are associated with drinking. Now, scientists are looking into the mechanism behind that dopamine spike in order to understand why certain behaviors, such as binge-drinking, occur.

In a new study published in the journal Neuropharmacology, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics focused on the role of a protein in the brain's ventral tegmental area (VTA), where alcohol-related dopamine is released. "Our work over the past two decades brought us to the possibility that a specific protein, KCNK13, was a target for alcohol," Mark Brodie, professor of physiology and biophysics at the university and the study's lead author told Wine Spectator. According to Brodie, KCNK13 is the protein that activates the VTA—and thus spurs a release of dopamine—when interacting with alcohol.

In a series of tests on mice, Brodie's team found that genetically reducing KCNK13 levels by about 15 percent was associated with a 20 percent increase in alcohol consumption. Brodie believes the mice were consuming more alcohol to try "to get the same level of 'good feeling' as mice with normal amounts of KCNK13," he said.

"This same relationship between KCNK13 and drinking may occur in humans, but we don’t know for sure," he added. "We speculate that if someone’s genetic makeup causes them to have lower amounts of KCNK13 in their brain, they might binge drink more alcohol than someone else who has higher amounts of KCNK13."

Not much is known about what determines an individual's KCNK13 levels; it could be an inherited trait, or it could have to do with life experiences, such as prolonged stress. Understanding the regulation of KCNK13 in the brain could help scientists down the road to develop treatments for those prone to excessive drinking, Brodie said. In the meantime, this study helps draw attention to the science behind alcohol's feel-good effects, even in those who enjoy in moderation.

Does That Nose Spray Come in Zinfandel Scent? Resveratrol Could Fight Lung Cancer, but Only if You Inhale

The polyphenolic compound resveratrol, found in red wines, has been linked in numerous studies to potential health benefits, including the ability to fight cancer. But how the body can best metabolize and use the compound has long been debated. A new study by researchers in Switzerland suggests that resveratrol could prevent lung cancer—but only if taken in a specific way.

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer, according to worldwide health statistics. For their research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) in Switzerland monitored four groups of mice. One group was given resveratrol before being injected with carcinogens, while the second group was given only the carcinogens. The team observed that the resveratrol-treated mice developed 45 percent fewer malignant cells compared to the group that received no resveratrol.

The two other groups of mice were both a strain that were already very sensitive to developing tumors (much like a smoker who’s more at risk for developing lung cancer). Neither group was injected with carcinogens. The scientists gave one group doses of resveratrol and nothing to the other group. They found that 63 percent of the mice given resveratrol did not develop cancer, compared to 12.5 percent in the control group.

But before you light up a cigarette and knock back a bottle of red wine, it’s important to know that oral consumption of resveratrol does not seem to help. “It has been found that when you take resveratrol by mouth it does have some effect on prevention of cancer, maybe [relating to] the gastrointestinal tract, but not in the lungs,” Muriel Cuendet, an associate professor in UNIGE’s school of pharmaceutical sciences, told Wine Spectator. “What we did is we gave the resveratrol to the mice in the nose, so when they were breathing, the compound was getting to the lungs.” In order for resveratrol to have the same effect on humans, it would have to be ingested as a nose spray.

Reminiscing Through Rosé-Colored Glasses: Alcohol May Affect the Feelings Associated with Past Drinking Experiences

Some of life's best memories can be made over a bottle of wine with friends. But a new study published in the scientific journal Neuron shows that the bottle may influence how you remember those moments, and thus may also cause cravings for another bottle in the future.

In the study, a team of Brown University researchers looked into the molecular basis of memories that form from sensory cues associated with drinking, "like the feel of a glass in your hand, the sound of a beer can being opened or the bouquet of your favorite wine," said Karla Kaun, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown and the paper's senior author. "These memories can trigger cravings for alcohol. Our rationale was if we could understand the molecular basis of these cravings, we would be one step closer to understanding how cravings form."

The researchers used genetically manipulated fruit flies—which "show remarkable similarity [to humans] in their response to alcohol," according to Kaun—to determine how alcohol contributes to memory-making. They found that alcohol increased activity of the brain's notch signaling pathway, which is involved in embryo development, brain development and adult brain function in both flies and humans.

The activation of the notch pathway sets off a chain of events, one of which affects the dopamine-2–like receptor, which is involved in determining whether a memory is a good one or a bad one. In the study, the researchers found that alcohol consumption led to a slight alteration in the genetic makeup of the dopamine-2–like receptor.

"This is a new layer of plasticity in memory circuits that could affect how our experiences drive our future actions," Kaun said.

They also found that while smaller doses of alcohol only temporarily activated the notch pathway in flies, heavier doses had longer-lasting effects. If these functions are similar in humans, this would mean that a certain number of drinks would more strongly influence the types of memories you make over a longer period of time.

"Since notch is very similar in function between flies and humans, we think that alcohol might also be able to activate [it] in our brains," Kaun said. "We hope that our study inspires someone who studies memory formation in mammalian brains."

Want to learn more about how wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle? Sign up for Wine Spectator's free Wine & Healthy Living e-mail newsletter and get the latest health news, feel-good recipes, wellness tips and more delivered straight to your inbox every other week!

Health News

You Might Also Like

Antinori's Piedmont Estate Prunotto Buys Vineyards in Serralunga d'Alba

Antinori's Piedmont Estate Prunotto Buys Vineyards in Serralunga d'Alba

The Italian wine company expands its Barolo presence with 8.4 acres in Cerretta

Nov 28, 2022
Study Finds Heavy or Binge Drinking by Younger Adults a Key Factor in Alcohol-Related Deaths

Study Finds Heavy or Binge Drinking by Younger Adults a Key Factor in Alcohol-Related Deaths

Looking at Americans 20 to 64 years old, researchers link alcohol to one in five deaths, …

Nov 22, 2022
Fraud Trial Roils Bordeaux

Fraud Trial Roils Bordeaux

For several years, a group of wine professionals trucked in millions of bottles worth of …

Nov 21, 2022
Scarpetta Opens New Outpost in Tokyo

Scarpetta Opens New Outpost in Tokyo

The restaurant group’s first location in Asia is part of a larger global expansion. Plus, …

Nov 17, 2022
Late-Season Frost Wreaks Havoc on Argentina Vineyards

Late-Season Frost Wreaks Havoc on Argentina Vineyards

A mix of freezing nights and warm days harmed vines throughout the country, but winemakers …

Nov 15, 2022
‘Straight Talk’ Podcast Episode 2 Spotlights Mondavi Legacy with Exclusive Interviews

‘Straight Talk’ Podcast Episode 2 Spotlights Mondavi Legacy with Exclusive Interviews

Host James Molesworth shares never-before-heard conversations with Wine Spectator editor …

Nov 11, 2022