People with sugar addiction could be treated with the same methods used to treat those with drug addiction, research has suggested.
Researchers from Queensland University of Technology conducted a study which found drugs used to treat nicotine addiction could also be used to treat sugar addiction - and therefore tackle the obesity epidemic.
There are currently 1.9 billion people worldwide who are overweight, with 600 million considered obese, according to the World Health Organisation.
Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It also elevates dopamine levels, which control the brain's reward and pleasure centres.
Researchers likened the effect sugar has on the brain to drugs such as tobacco, cocaine and morphine.
"After long-term consumption, this leads to the opposite, a reduction in dopamine levels," explained Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.
"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."
According to researchers, drugs like varenicline, a prescription medication trading 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 reevaluating our relationship with sweetened food per se," he said.
Professor Bartlett said varenicline acted as a "neuronal nicotinic receptor modulator" and similar results were observed with other such drugs including 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."
The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.