Alcohol may taste sweeter if you were exposed to it before birth, suggests a study in rats. The findings may shed new light on why human studies have previously linked fetal alcohol exposure to increased alcohol abuse later in life, and to a lower age at which a person first starts drinking alcohol.
Alcohol’s taste is a mixture of sweet and bitter components. To test whether prenatal alcohol exposure could affect the perception of these components, Steven Youngentob at the State University of New York in Syracuse and John Glendinning at Columbia University in New York measured how avidly rats consumed ethanol, sweet water or bitter water.
They found that young rats whose mothers had consumed alcohol during pregnancy preferred ethanol and consumed more of the bitter water than the offspring of mothers that didn’t consume alcohol. Rats that had been exposed to alcohol in the uterus also seemed to be more attracted to the smell of alcohol.
Prenatal exposure seems to reduce the perceived bitterness of alcohol, making it seem sweeter, says Youngentob.
Both of these differences seemed to disappear once the rats reached adulthood – but only if they hadn’t tasted alcohol during their youth. If prenatally exposed rats did consume alcohol in their youth, these preferences seemed to become set for life.
“The take-home message is to keep kids away from alcohol for as long as possible – particularly if they have had prenatal exposure,” says Youngentob.