Furthest Right

Sugar: The Gateway Drug

Professor Bart Hoebel and his team in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years. Until now, the rats under study have met two of the three elements of addiction. They have demonstrated a behavioral pattern of increased intake and then showed signs of withdrawal. His current experiments captured craving and relapse to complete the picture.

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Lab animals, in Hoebel’s experiments, that were denied sugar for a prolonged period after learning to binge worked harder to get it when it was reintroduced to them. They consumed more sugar than they ever had before, suggesting craving and relapse behavior. Their motivation for sugar had grown. “In this case, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” Hoebel said.

The rats drank more alcohol than normal after their sugar supply was cut off, showing that the bingeing behavior had forged changes in brain function. These functions served as “gateways” to other paths of destructive behavior, such as increased alcohol intake. And, after receiving a dose of amphetamine normally so minimal it has no effect, they became significantly hyperactive. The increased sensitivity to the psychostimulant is a long-lasting brain effect that can be a component of addiction, Hoebel said.

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Hoebel has shown that rats eating large amounts of sugar when hungry, a phenomenon he describes as sugar-bingeing, undergo neurochemical changes in the brain that appear to mimic those produced by substances of abuse, including cocaine, morphine and nicotine. Sugar induces behavioral changes, too.

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Hoebel and his team also have found that a chemical known as dopamine is released in a region of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens when hungry rats drink a sugar solution.

Some poncy college

Not surprising.

The recent additions to our intake — sugar, wheat, corn, nicotine — are substances our species has not yet had time to test against itself through natural selection. We’re in the process of testing ourselves, and weeding out the ones who cannot survive it — or get addicted to it.

Interesting to see that this makes the news, considering how much sugar is in all of our food. Modern society offers us many, many areas where we could say, “It’s all wrong and we need to completely redesign it.” Coincidentally, that would also make the process interesting again.


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