BRISBANE, Australia, April 7 (UPI) -- Drugs designed to help people quit smoking cigarettes may help those addicted to sugar, according to researchers in Australia.
The overconsumption of sugar is considered a major cause behind the global obesity epidemic, which previous research has shown is partially caused by an addiction -- excess sugar raises dopamine levels in the brain, the same as commonly abused and addictive drugs such as nicotine.
Researchers at Queensland University of Technology found the drug varenicline, marketed as Chantix, reduced consumption of sucrose, or table sugar, as well as artificial sweeteners such as saccharin among mice in the lab.
"Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain," Selena Bartless, a professor of neuroscience at QUT, said in a press release. "It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain's reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine."
In a study published in the journal Frontiers, the researchers establish with mice that sugar is addictive, changing the brain's expectation for dopamine and other chemicals as a result of overconsuming sucrose or other artificial sweeteners.
The researchers then tested varenicline on sugar and sweetener addicted mice in another study published in PLOS ONE, finding the drug influenced a reduction in consumption among the mice, suggesting it may be usable treatment for obesity in humans.
Varenicline was approved for use in the United States by the FDA in 2006 to treat nicotine addiction, making it easier to test the drug for other uses.
"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," Bartlett said. "Further studies are required but our results do suggest that current FDA-approved neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator drugs may represent a novel new treatment strategy to tackle the obesity epidemic."