(NaturalNews) A diet including unlimited amounts of junk food can cause rats to become so addicted to the unhealthy diet that they will starve themselves rather than go back to eating healthy food, researchers have discovered.
In a series of studies conducted over the course of three years and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Scripps Florida scientists Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny have shown that rats’ response to unlimited junk food closely parallels well-known patterns of drug addiction — even down to the changes in brain chemistry.
“What we have are these core features of addiction, and these animals are hitting each one of these features,” Kenny said.
In their first study, the researchers fed rats on either a balanced diet or on the same diet plus unlimited access to junk foods purchased at a local supermarket, including processed meats and cakes. Within a short time period, the rats on the junk food diet began to eat compulsively and quickly became overweight.
“They’re taking in twice the amount of calories as the control rats,” Kenny said.
The researchers hypothesized that the rats were eating compulsively because, like drug addicts, they had become desensitized to smaller amounts and needed more and more for the same rush of pleasure.
Many recreational drugs work by directly stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, particularly the dopamine receptor known as D2. Overstimulation of this receptor causes the body to start producing less dopamine, leading the addict to compensate by taking more of the drug.
Since dopamine can also be released by pleasurable activities such as food or sex, Kenny and Johnson speculated that food addiction could develop in the same way. To test whether the rats had, in fact, become habituated to dopamine, the researchers took the rats from the first experiment and hooked their brains up to a device that would directly stimulate their D2 receptors when they ran on a wheel.