You probably get that it's hard to have just one Starburst, M&M, spoonful of your favorite ice cream, etc. Sugary treats trigger our brain's reward system, flooding our neurons with the pleasure chemical dopamine. We feel awesome as a result but we instantly want more, as dopamine also gives rise to craving. And this is why some scientists now consider sugar to be a legitimately addictive substance.
But is sugar really on par with cigarettes, alcohol, or cocaine? One study freshly published in the journal PLOS ONE offers further evidence that sugar can mess with our brains just as severely as hardcore drugs do. But the same study also suggests that interventions designed to treat substance dependence could help sugar addicts break free from being hooked on sweets.
Researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, heightened a family of lab rats' sugar cravings by granting them access to a constant supply of super-sweet water for four weeks. These rats developed a tolerance for the sweet water during this time frame, meaning they needed more and more of it to feel satisfied. (Tolerance is a hallmark of addiction, hence why the researchers wanted to build it in their subjects.)
Once hooked on the sugar water, some rats were injected with a drug designed to treat nicotine addiction in humans called varenicline. Others were left to continue bingeing. Rats given varenicline were able to walk away from the sugar water feeder far more often - and easily - than their cousins who received no intervention.
They were also, not surprisingly, able to shed added pounds gained during the weeks they had access to the rodent equivalent of a dessert buffet. This led the researchers to conclude that yes, sugar addiction is legit but it might be stoppable with drugs designed to curb cravings for other addictive substances. "Further studies are required," the study authors said in a press release, "but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved nAChR drugs [i.e., varenicline] may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic."
Whether drugs designed to curb cravings can also help us solve the purported problem of cheese addiction, which some research suggests is also a thing, we'll have to wait and see.
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