Although the term "sugar addiction" often appears in magazines and on television, scientists had not demonstrated that such a thing as sugar dependency really exists, said neuroscientist Bart Hoebel, who led the study. Hoebel and colleagues studied rats that were induced to binge on sugar and found that they exhibited telltale signs of withdrawal, including "the shakes" and changes in brain chemistry, when the effects of the sweets were blocked. These signs are similar to those produced by drug withdrawal.
Sugar, said Hoebel, triggers production of the brain's natural opioids. "We think that is a key to the addiction process," he said. "The brain is getting addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. Drugs give a bigger effect, but it is essentially the same process."
Hoebel emphasized that there are more elements to addiction than bingeing and withdrawal, and that further studies will be needed to complete the picture. Also, it is not clear how closely the findings might apply to humans, he said.
The greatest value of the research, Hoebel said, is that it provides an animal model of sugar dependency, allowing scientists to probe more deeply the connections between food cravings and brain physiology.
As far as the plight of the many people who feel powerless in the face of sugar, it also is not clear how the findings will help, he noted. "Unfortunately, it's very difficult to treat addictions," he said. "But it does change the way the person might look at it. It puts it in the realm of an addictive disorder rather than a failure of willpower."
Hoebel's research was published in the June issue of Obesity Research. His co-authors are former undergraduates Carlo Colantuoni, Josep
Contact: Steven Schultz