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The same drugs used to combat tobacco addition could be successful in fighting sugar addiction, reports a new study.

Image credits flickr user david pacey

Obesity rates are rising worldwide, and one of the main culprits behind it is sugar. Sweets hold a huge amount of energy that our bodies can harness pretty easily; think of sugar as high-octane fuel for the body. Our brains just love sugar in all its forms, this being one of the main reason why sweets taste so good — so you’ll have an incentive to seek out foods high in sugar and nom on them. And that works well in the wild, where sources of sugar are pretty rare. But in our modern society, it becomes as easy as going to the fridge.

“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” said Professor Bartlett, who is based at the Translational Research Institute. “The latest World Health Organisation figures tell us 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight, with 600 million considered obese.”

People frequently overindulge, sometimes to the point of developing sugar addictions. There has been a lot of interest in the pharmaceutical industry in finding treatments that can combat this effect, with little results up to now. But, a world-first study led by QUT might change that.

Neuroscientist Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation said their findings show that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could be used to treat sugar addiction in animals.

“[Chronic sugar intake] has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine. After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite, a reduction in dopamine levels. This leads to higher consumption of sugar to get the same level of reward.”

“Our study found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading as Champix which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings.”

Another paper by the same team was published at the same time, which shows how prolonged chronic sugar intake can lead to eating disorders and adverse effects on behavior.

“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation.

PhD researcher Masroor Shariff said the study also put artificial sweeteners under the spotlight.

“Interestingly, our study also found that artificial sweeteners such as saccharin could produce effects similar to those we obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of reevaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se,” said Mr Shariff.

Professor Bartlett said varenicline acted as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator (or nAChR) and similar results were observed with other such drugs including mecamylamine and cytisine.

“Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going ‘cold turkey’ from them,” she said.

“Further studies are required but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved nAChR drugs may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic.”

The full paper, titled “Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Modulators Reduce Sugar Intake” has been published online in the journal PLOS ONE and can be read here.