How Our Highly-Evolved Salt Craving Makes Coke and Heroin Harder to Kick

By Jason Gotlieb 07/26/11

Drug addictions follow the same neural networks as an ancient urge for salt, says study.

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The same neural networks in the brain that regulate hunger for salt also control drug addiction, claims a study published this month that could have major implications for future treatment. "Salt appetite uses pathways that also have been taken advantage of by cocaine and opiate addiction," said Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at Duke and a lead author of the study. "That helps us understand why the lust to gratify salt appetite has such a powerful influence on human behavior." Or as Texas Biomed geneticist Laura Almasy put it, "What this paper suggests is that the mechanism for why it feels good is that cocaine and opioids are hitting the pathways that were laid down to help us regulate salt intake." There's good reason for us to have a pre-programmed salt craving. Salt is necessary to maintain healthy fluid levels and helps muscle and nerve function. It's also used as a natural preservative (think beef jerky).

Experts say our ingrained desire for salt helps explain why it's so hard to overcome certain drug addictions. "Our findings imply that abstinence-aimed therapies are up against reward systems that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, thus conferring a powerful survival advantage," said Liedtke. As that time-scale suggests, the natural urge for salt pre-dates human existence—animals share it and most of the team's experiments were carried out on rats. Herbivores, unable to derive salt from meat, are willing to go to particular lengths: One herd of elephants observed in Kenya has learned to march a mile into a pitch-dark cave just to reach a salt lick, a single-mindedness not unfamiliar to drug addicts.
 

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Jason Gotlieb is a programmer, software developer, and writer living in New York. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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