Diets high in high fructose corn syrup may indirectly contribute to opioid dependence, according to research presented this week at Neuroscience 2017, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Previous research has shown that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) impacts the brain in a way similar to addictive drugs. It triggers a “reward response” in the brain’s reward circuitry that leads to continued cravings, in much the same way as a narcotic. These similarities have led researchers to wonder whether diets high in HFCS may play a role in opioid dependence.
In the latest study, rats were fed a diet high in HFCS before being given a dose of oxycodone, one of the prescription pain killers at the center of the opioid epidemic. Researchers then examined the rats’ behavior and changes in how their brains responded to the drug.
The results showed that the brains of rats given HFCS produced lower levels of dopamine—the neurotransmitter that fuels the brain’s reward circuitry—when given their dose of oxycodone. This suggests that HFCS decreased the reward response in the rats’ brains – in other words, it tuned down the explosion of dopamine that would normally accompany taking oxy.
The rats’ behavior also changed. Taking oxy usually results in certain exaggerated changes in “locomotive behavior,” but that behavior was also reduced in rats given HFCS.
“Our experiments show that chronic pre-exposure to high-fructose corn syrup impacted both the neural and behavioral responses to oxycodone, resulting in changes likely to impact drug-taking and drug-seeking behavior,” said co-lead author Meenu Minhas, a PhD student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
For people taking prescription opioids, the takeaway here is that your diet may influence how much of the drugs you find yourself wanting to take. A diet high in HFCS (and possibly sugar in general) could be dampening your brain’s response to the drugs, which leads to taking more to get the same effect.
“These results suggest that nutrition, and sugar intake in particular, can influence some responses to opioids, a finding that may be relevant both to clinical uses of opioids and to treating addiction,” added Minhas.
The research findings were presented at Neuroscience 2017.