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A Pill to Treat Sugar Addiction

Drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could also be used to treat sugar addiction, according to research from Queensland University of Technology.

“The latest World Health Organisation figures tell us 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight, with 600 million considered obese,” said Prof Selena Bartlett of QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, who is corresponding author of the study published in PLOS ONE (

“Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain,” Bartlett said. “It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels, which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse, including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.

“After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite: a reduction in dopamine levels. 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. Our study found that Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs like varenicline (a prescription medication trading as Champix, 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 re-evaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se.”

Bartlett said that varenicline acted as a neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator (nAChR), and similar results were observed with similar drugs such as 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.”

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