There are plenty of substances out there
that become root causes of addiction, from the usual suspects of
morphine, cocaine and amphetamines to everyday products such as alcohol
and nicotine. Yet nothing might be as sad as the image of a rat hooked
on sugar. The sweet sufferings of these hopped-up rodents were
demonstrated by Professor Bart Hoebel of Princeton University, who
presented his research at a recent meeting of the American College of
In order to prove a substance causes a
true dependence, three conditions must be met to satisfy skeptical
scientists. First is increased intake: A user becomes accustomed to a
certain amount of a drug and gradually needs more and more to achieve
the same high. Second is the presence of withdrawal symptoms, when the
drug is unavailable; lack of access produces marked physical and
emotional distress. Third is craving and relapse.
Of these conditions, the first two had
previously been confirmed in rats that became addicted to sugar. To
substantiate the conditions of craving and relapse, Hoebel and his team
first withdrew sugar from a group of rodents who were used to consuming
large amounts of a 10 percent sugar solution. After being kicked off
the wagon and again given sugar, the rats consumed even larger amounts
than they had prior to the withdrawal.
During the time they weren’t snorting
sugar, the rodents were extremely sensitive to minute amounts of
stimulants such as amphetamines. They also drank more alcohol than they
typically did. Both of these findings parallel human behavior during
withdrawal from drugs.
During the abstinence from sugar, the
normally inquisitive rats withdrew to the safest corner of the cage and
sat there with their teeth chattering. The pitiful creatures appeared
very similar to humans going through drug or alcohol detox.
Since these studies were conducted on
rats, further research is needed to perceive how the findings apply to
humans. Indications are that there is carry-over to people dealing with
obesity or bulimia and perhaps to all who consume too much sugar.
The 10 percent sugar solution fed to the
rodents mirrors the sugar content in soft drinks so popular among young
people. This tells us that some individuals could develop abnormal
craving and addiction to common everyday substances such as sugar. Once
the dependence arises, the brain begins to progress through the same
sequence of chemical changes it would with heroin or cocaine. Clearly,
overuse of refined sugar has a dark side; just as those poor rats who
couldn’t kick their sugar rush.