In a study designed to shed light on the potential addictiveness of high-fat/high-sugar foods, Connecticut College Professor Joseph Schroeder and his students found rats formed an equally strong association between the pleasurable effects of eating Oreos and a specific environment as they did between cocaine or morphine and a specific environment.
They also found that eating the cookies activated even more neurons in the brain's "pleasure center" than exposure to cocaine or morphine.
"Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do," Schroeder said in a college press release. "It may explain why some people can't resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them."
The research was the brainchild of neuroscience major/head nerd Jamie Honohan '13.
"We chose Oreos not only because they are America's favorite cookie, and highly palatable to rats, but also because products containing high amounts of fat and sugar are heavily marketed in communities with lower socioeconomic statuses," she said.
To test the addictiveness of Oreos, Honohan and a co-researcher, Becca Markson '13 (sub-nerd), worked with Schroeder and two other students to measure the association between "drug" and environment.
On one side of a maze, they gave hungry rats Oreos, and on the other, they gave a control -- in this case, rice cakes. ("Just like humans, rats don't seem to get much pleasure out of eating them," Schroeder said.) Then, they gave the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measured how long they spent on the side where they were typically fed Oreos, where the rodents tended to lean against the wall and shoot craps.
They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. (Many rats volunteered for this experiment.)
The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the "drug" side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine. In other words, both cocaine- and cookie-addicted rats hung out on the Dark Side, or the maze "ghetto," waiting for another hit. (Would the rats OD on Double-Stuff Oreos, we wonder?)
The researchers also measured neuronal activation in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain's "pleasure center." They found that the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine in the rats' brains, meaning the cookies were more addictive than drugs.
"This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/high-sugar foods are addictive," said Schroeder.
"Even though we associate significant health hazards in taking drugs like cocaine and morphine, high-fat/high-sugar foods may present even more of a danger because of their accessibility and affordability," Honohan said.
Oreos are bad, mmmkay?!