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People with sugar addiction could be treated with the same methods used to treat those with drug addiction, research has suggested. 

Researchers from Queensland University of Technology conducted a study which found drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could also be used to treat sugar addiction – and therefore tackle the obesity epidemic.

There are currently 1.9 billion people worldwide who are overweight, with 600 million considered obese, according to the World Health Organisation.

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Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It also elevates dopamine levels, which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres.

Researchers likened the effect sugar has on the brain to drugs such as tobacco, cocaine and morphine.

“After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite, a reduction in dopamine levels,” explained Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.

“This leads to higher consumption of sugar to get the same level of reward.”

“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.”

According to researchers, drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading which treats nicotine addiction, can work the same way when it comes to sugar cravings.

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,” he said.

Professor Bartlett said varenicline acted as a “neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator” 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 study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE

Common Names For Added Sugar

Agave (01 of 21)

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This plant based syrup has a sweet mild flavour and is used in making alcoholic beverages like Tequila. (credit: Bill Boch via Getty Images)

Barley Malt(02 of 21)

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Blackstrap Molasses(03 of 21)

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Dark dregs of molasses get boiled down a bit more to make sweet blackstrap molasses. And while many health enthusiasts praise the syrup, it should be noted that it only contains a fraction of the iron, calcium and phosphates found in sugar cane. (credit: Spyderella/Flickr)

Brown Sugar(04 of 21)

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No, brown sugar isn’t the ‘whole wheat’ version of sugar, it is actually white sugar combined with molasses. (credit: Shutterstock / IngridHS)

Cane Sugar / Syrup(05 of 21)

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This thick sweetener is derived from sugar cane. (credit: MVorobiev)

Caramel(06 of 21)

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Cooked sugar is still sugar, so if you’re looking to cut out added sugars you should definitely be avoiding caramel. (credit: Laura Groesbeck via Getty Images)

Concentrated Fruit Juice(07 of 21)

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Fresh fruits are absolutely good for you, but concentrated fruit juice is just too sweet. Think of this stuff as all the overwhelming sweetness from 12 fruits with none of the nutritious fibre. (credit: Erwin Purnomosidi via Getty Images)

Corn Syrup(08 of 21)

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This thick, sweet syrup is made from cornstarch, and is a key ingredient in frosting, candies, jams and jellies. (credit: PRImageFactory via Getty Images)

Demerara Sugar(09 of 21)

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This coarse raw sugar originated from the Demerara area of Guyana. It’s toffee-like flavour makes a good alternative to brown sugar. (credit: Joy Skipper via Getty Images)

High-Fructose Corn Syrup(10 of 21)

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Honey(11 of 21)

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This sweet liquid doesn’t get its colour and flavour from bees, its sweet taste actually comes from flower nectar. (credit: Ljupco Smokovski via Getty Images)

Icing Sugar(12 of 21)

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There’s not a huge difference between granulated and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar is in fact granulated sugar ground super fine. (credit: Dave King)

Lactose(13 of 21)

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This sugar, derived from milk can be quite difficult for both children and adults to digest. (credit: Shutterstock / Subbotina Anna)

Liquid Sugar(14 of 21)

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This simple syrup is made with a combination of granulated sugar and water. (credit: David Murray and Jules Selmes via Getty Images)

Maple Syrup(15 of 21)

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Made from the sap in maple trees, maple syrup is often served on its own. (credit: Chefmd via Getty Images)

Molasses(16 of 21)

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Another byproduct of sugar cane, molasses is used in everything from baked beans to gingerbread. (credit: Rachel Husband via Getty Images)

Muscovado Sugar(17 of 21)

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Yet another cane sugar, muscavado is a moist brown sugar with strong molasses flavour. (credit: Gary Ombler via Getty Images)

Nectar(18 of 21)

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This super sweet liquid is what attracts bees to flowers. (credit: sf_foodphoto)

Raw Sugar(19 of 21)

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Raw sugar is what is left from sugar cane after the molasses is removed. While it looks and tastes like light brown sugar it is structurally very different. (credit: Yuri Arcurs via Getty Images)

Rice Syrup(20 of 21)

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This thick syrup is made from the starch found in rice. (credit: Bill Boch via Getty Images)

Turbinado Sugar(21 of 21)

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This cane sugar is less processed than brown sugar and gives off a smooth caramel flavour. (credit: David Bishop Inc. via Getty Images)