Can Anti-Smoking Drugs Really Assist with Sugar Cravings?

New research conducted with rats has suggested that anti-smoking drugs could play a significant role in reducing cravings for sugar.

The history of rats being involved in human research is, of course, well established, perhaps most notably by John B. Calhoun, who coined the term ‘behavioural sink’ to describe his experiments which dealt with dysfunctional rat populations.

But the latest research suggests that varenicline (Champix), used to relieve nicotine cravings, could also help reduce the desire to consume sugary foods and drinks.

Because this drug blocks dopamine receptors in the brain, it effectively prevents nicotine from the stimulating the usual reward and response cycle.

Researchers thus tested the medicine with sugar as well, giving rats a sugar solution for a 4-12 week period.

Following this initial introduction of the sugar into their diet, the test subjects were then provided with varenicline, which reportedly reduced their sugar consumption for 30 minutes.

The researchers found that varenicline significantly reduced sugar consumption after both the short- and long-term intermittent sugar exposures.

However, varenicline was only effective at the higher dose (2mg/kg) in the short-term group. In the long-term group, it was effective at both lower and higher doses (1 and 2mg/kg).

The drug effect lasted for up to 30 minutes, but was no longer effective when the rats were assessed two and 24 hours after injection.

This research provides some form of evidence that sugar consumption can be related to the same pathway as other potentially addictive subjects such nicotine, at least in rats, and that anti-smoking drugs could potentially provide similar relief.

The study was carried out by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and SRI International in California. Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council, National Health & Medical Research Council, and the National Institute of Health.

It is an interesting innovation as the drug varenicline has only previously been licensed and prescribed in order to help people with the cessation of smoking.

Researchers had no idea what results would be found from the experiment, but were pleasantly surprised that varenicline had a tangible effect on the rats’ desire for sugar.

With the study having been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, it is thought that the research is fairly solid, and indeed the open access nature of the journal means that it is freely available to peruse on the Internet.

However, some of the media coverage of this particular story is rather premature and sensational, with reports suggesting that this research could represent a significant breakthrough in the so-called war on obesity.

There has been absolutely no human causal link made at this point in time, although it is certainly interesting that rats’ brain receptors seemed to be positively influenced by this process.

Additionally, the extremely short-term influence of the drug on the behaviour of rats and their cortical activity suggests that the whole research could ultimately be a red herring.

Whether it would be possible to lengthen this response and reduce the craving to sugar over a longer period of time remains to be seen, quite apart from the fact that no causality has been proven in humans as yet.

This is before one goes into the side-effects of this particular drug, which can be quite serious.

Irritability and anxiety are associated with varenicline, and it is debatable whether reducing craving for sugar via this substance would be tenable and advisable.


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