Rats find Oreos as addictive as cocaine — an unusual college research project

Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program, and Lauren Cameron ’14 found that eating Oreos activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure center” than exposure to drugs of abuse.

Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program, and Lauren Cameron ’14. (Connecticut College Web site)

I have a thing for Double Stuf Oreos (I can’t eat just one, or five, for that matter), so I was naturally interested in a research project by faculty and students at Connecticut College that involved Oreos.

In an effort to investigate how addictive high-fat and high-sugar foods are and how it might have stoked the nation’s obesity epidemic,  the researchers conducted an experiment using Oreos (though apparently the original and not Double Stuf or Mega Stuf) and that perennial proxy scientists like to use for humans, rats.

According to a college press release, the idea for the experiment came from neuroscience major Jamie Honohan ’13,  a student in the college’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy.

Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program, led Honohan and other students in the experiment, which led to the conclusion that rats find Oreos just as addictive as cocaine because the cookies stimulate the brain in the same way some drugs do. And the rats went first for the cream in the middle, just like lots of human Oreo consumers.

According to the release,

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. [The Researchers] also found that eating cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s ‘pleasure center’ than exposure to drugs of abuse.

“Our research supports the theory that high-fat/ high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder said. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

 

To test the addictiveness of Oreos, Honohan and a co-researcher, Becca Markson ’13, worked with Schroeder and two other students, Science Leader Gabriela Lopez ’15 and Katrina Bantis ’15, during the past school year to measure the association between “drug” and environment.

Honohan and other students, along with Schneider, put Oreos on one side of a maze and rice cakes on the other.  Rats were given the option where to go, and you can guess where that was. The rats, he said, broke open the cookie and ate the middle first.

The researchers then compared the time that the rats spent with the Oreos and the rice cakes, and compared that to the results of an experiment in which rats on one side of a maze were given a shot of saline and rats on the other side were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, both addictive drugs. (Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research, the release says.)

The results? The rats spent as much time with Oreos as they did with cocaine/morphine.

Honohan was quoted as saying:

My research interests stemmed from a curiosity for studying human behavior and our motivations when it comes to food. 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.

Neuroscience major and Science Leader Lauren Cameron ’14 was awarded a grant to continue the work this past summer with Schroeder.  Their results: Oreos activated significantly more neurons in rats’ brains than did cocaine or morphine.

 

“This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/ high-sugar foods are addictive,” said Schroeder.

 

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