Having a family history of alcoholism is considered a risk factor for developing the disorder oneself, but not all children of alcoholics are affected equally. Scientists are thus on the lookout for other markers that could help identify the individuals most at risk. Research published in the current issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research may help. Scientists report that people with a family history of alcoholism taste sour and salty things differently than do people with no family history of the disorder.

Previous research had suggested a link between having a preference for sweets and consuming more alcohol both in animals and some humans. In the new work, Henry R. Kranzler of the University of Connecticut Health Center and his colleagues analyzed differences in taste perceptions of salty and sour solutions between people with and without alcoholic fathers. The researchers determined that subjects with a family history of alcoholism found salty solutions less pleasurable than did those individuals not related to alcoholics. Sour substances were also more intense and less enjoyable for people with alcoholism in their family than for those with no family history. "We interpret these findings as evidence of unique taste perception among individuals with a paternal history of alcoholism compared to those without such a history," Kranzler says.

Just how the taste differences affect children of alcoholics remains unclear, however. The study subjects were screened to eliminate people who were suffering from alcoholism themselves, so it is not yet known if taste perceptions also differ between children of alcoholics who succumb to the disorder and those who do not. Kranzler notes that the taste differences identified in this study could serve as protection against alcoholism but some people with a family history may also have alterations in taste characteristics that put them at increased risk of the disorder. Alexei B. Kampov-Polevoy of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who also studies taste characteristics, points out that "if confirmed, these data may contribute to the development of physiological markers of alcoholism."