Habits become habits for a reason. It happens over time, as repeated behavior slowly changes the circuitry of our brains and that behavior becomes… well, habitual. Now imagine trying to break a habit in just a few days or weeks using sheer willpower. Not so easy, right? That’s exactly what Duke University scientists confirmed in a recent study involving mice.
For the study, researchers got a group of otherwise healthy mice addicted to sugar by training them to press a small lever every time they wanted sweets. Not surprisingly, the mice continued the behavior even after the researchers stopped providing the sweets, proof their behavior had evolved into a habit. But the really interesting part comes next.
When the brain scans of the sugar-addicted mice were compared with those of another group of mice who were not sugar dependent, there was a big difference. Basically, the brain produces clear stop/go signals that determine whether or not we go after the object we are craving, and in the mice who craved sweets those signals became heightened and actually reversed—with the green light overtaking the red, so to speak. In fact, the change was so clear that researchers were able to distinguish between the two groups just by looking at their brain samples.
The takeaway here is that kicking the sugar habit may actually involve a very long process of rewiring our brains through repeated behavior. But one day, said lead author Dr. Nicole Calakos, “We may be able to target these circuits in people to help promote habits that we want and kick out those that we don’t want.” This is positive news, especially since a diet high in sugar has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and countless other health problems.