Scientists are testing weight loss drugs to see if they can be used to treat addiction

Scientists are testing weight loss drugs to see if they can be used to treat addiction

Over the past two decades or so, a number of so-called “obesity” or “weight loss” or “appetite suppressant” or “diet” drugs have come and gone in the marketplace.

Each was aimed at helping overweight and obese people lose weight by weaning them away from their food addictions.

But for one reason or another, most have disappeared. And not too surprising, considering the history of some of these poorly tested concoctions. Some early weight loss drugs were ineffective, others made people feel ill or crazy, at least one was actually addictive, and one in particular was outright dangerous – remember Fen-Phen destroying heart valves?

Recently, some newer drugs like Contrave, Qsymia, and Belviq have been introduced with considerable fanfare. Yet they’ve all turned out to be commercial failures in spite of having fewer side effects than their predecessors. Doctors didn’t prescribe them nearly as much as the drugmakers hoped, and overweight Americans stayed away from them in droves.

Diet drugs and the opioid epidemic

Today, thanks to overwhelming interest in lightening the burden of America’s addictions, scientists are looking at these diet drugs as potential addiction therapies.

Academics and scientists have suspected for years that if dependence on cocaine or cigarettes is the result of an addiction, obesity might similarly be an addiction to food. So the newest crop of drugs intended for food addiction may, they think, be able to be repurposed to treat drug addictions.

One project in particular, recently reported in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, described how systemically administered obesity drug compounds decreased cocaine use and relapse at doses that did not affect food intake, body weight, nausea or drug-withdrawal malaise.

Belviq, the trade name for the active ingredient lorcaserin, performed so poorly in the market that its developer, Arena Pharmaceuticals, offloaded it to a Japanese partner company. Today, however, researchers linked to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) are studying lorcaserin’s use as a cocaine therapy.

Why may obesity be linked to addiction?

“There's an enormous amount of overlap” between addiction and obesity, says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA. In a recent StatNews article, Volkow said, “We’re observing that molecules that modify eating behavior also modify the motivation to take drugs.”

She continued,

“If you think about it, the neurocircuitry that we evolve to ensure that we eat food is fundamental for our survival, and it relies on two simple things: one, making food very rewarding, and two, making the lack of food very aversive. When you taste food and it’s very pleasant, that generates a memory that encourages you to repeat that action. On the other hand, when you don’t have food, it’s so uncomfortable that you learn to do anything to end that feeling. You eat. That same neurocircuitry — which helps ensure our survival — is hijacked by drugs.”

Volkow explained that addictive drugs work on our instinctual response to “a state of deprivation. They create that state of deprivation — an artificial hunger for the drug. So the brain seems to learn that if you don’t get the drug, you won’t be able to survive.”

In addition to lorcaserin (the Belviq ingredient) which shows promise as a cocaine treatment drug, the ingredients in diet drug Contrave look “compelling for addiction,” Volkow said. Bupropion, used to treat cigarette smoking, has been combined with naltrexone, commonly used in addiction therapies.

“I think there’s a great opportunity to develop more targeted interventions for the treatment of addiction,” Volkow said. “There are some good medications for the treatment of heroin addiction and other kinds of addictions, but we could do better. We have nothing for marijuana addiction, or for methamphetamine, cocaine, or inhalants. We could use better treatments for cigarette addictions as well,” she added.

If you or someone you care for needs some help for a substance use disorder of any kind, call Novus right away.

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