Could Smoking Cessation Drugs Stop Sugar Addiction?

By Keri Blakinger 04/12/16

Nicotine and sugar follow the same reward pathways in the brain, so could one drug treat both addictions?

Could Smoking Cessation Drugs Stop Sugar Addiction?
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Americans are on a long-term sugar high. The average American eats around 128 pounds of sugar per year, according to USDA data. Why? Because, well, it’s quite addictive.

Back in 2013, a Connecticut College study sparked some controversy by claiming “Drugs Are No More Addictive Than Oreos.” The study showed that rodents in a maze were just as likely to pick the side of the maze that led to Oreos as they were to pick the side that led to drugs. That study dealt with hard drugs like heroin and cocaine and, on its face, the implications of the findings may seem absurd.

But now, a recenty study published in PLOS ONE shows that sugar addiction may have something in common with one type of drug addiction—nicotine addiction. Researchers at Queensland University found that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction also work to treat sugar addiction, according to The Daily Beast. Given the connection between sugar consumption and obesity, the new findings could imply different paths for weight loss treatment in the future. 

But, that wasn’t what the researchers were really trying to find when they embarked on their research. Initially, one of the researchers was looking into the effects of alcohol on the brain when she discovered that alcohol and sugar had very similar effects on the brain, both causing elevated dopamine levels in the same pathways. Then, another researcher who was working with nicotine saw brain scans from the work and realized that nicotine, alcohol and sugar addictions all followed the same basic reward pathways in the brain.

Thus, in order to show that nicotine and sugar were really using the same pathways, researchers decided to see if nicotine addiction drugs would work to treat sugar addiction. To test that, they gave Chantix, a drug for quitting smoking, to rats who’d been eating a lot of sugar and found that it decreased their sugar consumption.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chantix will cure obesity. “We don’t want people going to the doctor and asking for [Chantix],” study lead Dr. Selena Bartlett told The Daily Beast. Clinical studies on humans have yet to be conducted and Bartlett says it’s unsafe. “I don’t like to push drugs on people because they’re already on a lot of drugs,” she said. Like most drugs, Chantix comes with risks that may not outweigh the benefits.

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

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.