The neurophysiological shape of wine expertise (and why reports that somms are Alzheimer’s-resistant are wrong)

Even if you think of your brain as a muscle, you probably don’t think about it literally bulking up as a result of exercise. It does, at least in some cases. Master sommeliers – professionals who we assume (and sure hope) have intensively developed senses of smell – have more white matter in regions of the brain associated with olfaction, according to new research (open-access) comparing images of master somm’s brains with those of randomly wine inexpert university students. Very similar patterns of brain-buffness have been found in the heads of professional perfumers.

There’s a funny paradox at play here. On the one hand, smell is probably the least understood of the senses – at least if we’re only counting the canonical ones. On the other, in part because it’s so little understood, smell is a favorite subject for this kind of study. You might suspect that smell is also useful for being simple and isolated from other elements of mental function. It’s not.

One reason for being interested in the brain’s anatomy of smell is to test the limits of neuroplasticity – how much our brains can change after we become adults. (How much can it change? A lot more than previous models of human development allowed.) At least in the United States, most wine experts will have learned their craft as adults. Another reason for smell-focused research is that olfactory regions are among the first to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the extent that smell impairment is being considered an early warning sign of those diseases. That link is especially interesting in light of the mountain of scientific and lay-person evidence linking smell with memory.

I’m still waiting for the study investigating whether well-trained oenophiles have better memories or are less prone to Alzheimer’s. Which, contrary to reports by writers who actually earn salaries for their work, is not what this study did. This is observational research about neuroplasticity and developing expertise, about the capacity of the adult brain to change shape with training. No one investigated rates of Alzheimer’s amongst aging sommeliers. No one gave them memory tests. Certainly no one sat around and watched the somms who took part in this study into their retirement years to check up on their mental acuity. Even if they had, too few sommeliers were involved to make any kind of statistically significant judgment even about a disease that the US National Institute on Aging calls the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

We can say that the effects of intensive sensory training are apparent on an MRI. We can’t say that becoming an expert wine-sniffer prevents Alzheimer’s. Not yet.

Nutrition labels for wine bottles: A good rationale, and a better one

Talking about nutrition labeling for wine is useful. But a new study (open-access article) assessing consumers’ interest in nutrition info on wine bottles limits its usefulness from the first sentence. The introduction begins, “Alcohol misuse…” Yes, alcohol is misused. But framing research in a way that says that alcohol is important because it is misused colors everything that follows: alcohol is going to be treated as a social evil; alcohol is going to be treated as a drug; alcohol is going to be treated as something that needs to be controlled and restrained; wine is going to be treated as alcohol. Those assumptions are especially out of place when we’re talking about nutrition labels, things usually used for food.

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Legal closure follows scientific closure on arsenic in wine

Reporting from California-based people who’ve been keeping eyes on this thing (W. Blake Gray at Wine-Searcher, Ben O’donnell at Wine Spectator) says that a California judge has dismissed the much-discussed lawsuit charging that a large pile of California wines contain dangerous amounts of arsenic and mislead consumers into thinking that they’re safe. The lawsuit has smacked of an ill-advised attempt to promote a fundamentally flawed business from the outset. Mr. Hicks and company started a company called Beverage Grades trying to sell consumers ratings for individual wines’ healthfulness, then set out to prove that consumers needed this kind of protection from fraudulently toxic wine. I’m speculating, and the plaintiffs may have had additional ulterior motives – a clinical phobia of poisoning by heavy metals, perhaps? — but it’s hard to ignore the business connection. 

I haven’t followed the legal side of the case, but I’ve written about the baselessness of the scientific side when Mr. Hicks first began pandering his wine rating business, when the lawsuit was first raised, and when a peer-reviewed scientific evaluation on the arsenic-in-wine question was published in the venerable American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in February this year. Throughout, BeverageGrades and the lawsuit’s plaintiffs have kept their own data under wraps while the independent scientific studies not only made theirs public, but passed them through scientific review. Even apart from everything else, that one fact tells you everything you need to know.

I’d love to claim scientific “closure” on the issue. I can’t, quite, but only because medical juries are still out on precisely where safe thresholds for arsenic consumption sits. But we can definitely say this: from a scientific, data-driven perspective, arsenic in wine isn’t a problem. Unless you’re literally drinking wine like water, in which case you have bigger issues. And while we’re at it, since arsenic is found naturally in water and soil, many of your other ordinary foods and beverages contain small amounts of it, and that’s both normal and okay.

We can’t quite claim legal closure on this story – given the plaintiffs’ track record, appealing today’s decision wouldn’t be out of character. But let’s say that, like the scientific story, the odds are looking very good indeed.