Sugar-coated Laziness

Check out this study. Researchers found that when "teenage" rats (30-45 days old) consumed massive amounts of sugar, they became extremely difficult to train as adults. For two weeks or so during adolescence, one group of rats had free access to a tasty 5% sucrose solution, while the control group only had water available. Similar to some American teenagers, the experimental group of rats consumed about 20% of their daily caloric intake as simple sugar.

To give you some background, it's extremely easy to train adult rats to perform simple tasks, such as pulling levers or pressing buttons in return for a food reward. However, the researchers couldn't motivate the rats that had consumed large amounts of sugar as teenagers to learn the task. My first reaction while reading this paper was: "Big deal. That group of rats just had sugar overload. It no longer had any real value for them, so there was no incentive to learn the new task".

But here's where the story gets interesting: if you repeat the experiment, but replace the teenage rats with adult rats, you get strikingly different results. When adult rats have free access to a sugary drink for two weeks, they never lose motivation for the sweet reward, and easily learn the new lever-pull task later in life. So it's not that rats are simply sick of the sweet reward, but rather, it seems the sweet drink over-stimulated the reward pathway in the brain during adolescent development, leading to problems with motivation in adulthood.

Were the calories in the sugary drink or the sweet taste to blame for hyper-activating the reward circuits in the brain? To answer this, the authors took another group of teenage rats and gave them free access to a drink flavored with artificial sweetener, which has no calories. These rats were also unmotivated and rather difficult to train later in life, so the authors concluded that the sweet taste, but not the sugar itself, was hyper-activating the brain's reward circuits.

Besides, ahem, crazy neuroscientists writing for health blogs, who cares about lazy rats? Well, the authors argue that a sign of depression in rodents is lack of motivation to perform simple tasks. Given that incidence rates for depression and other psychological illness are increasing in today's society, it's interesting to see how seemingly benign events during adolescence -- a critical time in brain development -- affect the mental state of adult animals.