A class of potent medications designed to address weight-related concerns, including Wegovy and Ozempic, may possess a hidden potential—one that extends beyond altering physical body weight and into the realm of the human brain.
For some individuals utilizing drugs like semaglutide, which go by brand names like Wegovy and Ozempic, an unexpected and beneficial side effect has emerged: a marked reduction in incessant thoughts about food, a decreased desire for alcohol, and a diminished craving for nicotine.
These accounts raise intriguing possibilities, suggesting that drugs like semaglutide, primarily approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating type 2 diabetes and obesity, might be repurposed as much-needed treatments for substance use disorders.
While the notion may seem ambitious, some researchers are beginning to entertain the idea with optimism, supported not solely by anecdotal evidence but by clinical findings. Semaglutide’s capacity to reduce an individual’s inclination towards alcohol, tobacco, and even opioids has piqued the interest of addiction researchers who’ve been studying its precursor compounds for their impact on reward-seeking behavior.
Christian Hendershot, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, underscores the significance of this recent evidence, stating that it is “fairly unprecedented” and emphasizes the need to advance clinical research in this area.
Nonetheless, researchers acknowledge that further comprehensive studies involving larger populations are imperative. Existing medications have demonstrated effectiveness in addiction treatment, but the potential of semaglutide and its derivatives in this arena is undeniably promising.
Recent studies in rodents reveal encouraging results. Semaglutide has been found to reduce excessive alcohol consumption in rats and mice, mimicking binge drinking and alcohol dependency in humans. These results support the drug’s potential in addressing substance use disorders.
Moreover, the brain regions involved in driving eating behavior have substantial overlap with those associated with alcohol and drug use. This observation offers further support for the potential efficacy of semaglutide and related drugs in addiction treatment.
Promisingly, these drugs may also hold promise in curbing opioid addiction. Research on liraglutide, a close relative of semaglutide, has demonstrated reduced heroin-seeking behavior in male rats, potentially attributable to changes in brain activity patterns.
Human trials are underway, albeit cautiously. Researchers are excited about the potential of these drugs, but they acknowledge the need for thorough investigation and validation in clinical settings.
Andrew Saxon, an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, expresses cautious optimism, highlighting the consistent challenge of translating promising animal study results into effective human treatments.
One notable feature of these drugs is their ability to impact various aspects of the body, including the brain, by mimicking the hormone GLP-1. Although researchers have some insights into how GLP-1 and its analogs function, they do not fully understand the extent of their effects on nerve cells and the brain networks they form. Fundamental questions remain, including whether these drugs directly access the brain or exert their effects indirectly.
As with any medication, these drugs are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some individuals experience side effects such as nausea, digestive issues, and headaches. Additionally, not everyone desires weight loss as a side effect, particularly those who are already underweight.
While the current excitement may raise expectations, researchers acknowledge that much more work lies ahead to ascertain where these drugs may excel and where their limitations lie. Nigel Greig, a neuroscientist exploring GLP-1-mimicking drugs as a potential Parkinson’s disease treatment, reflects on the cautious approach necessary when evaluating new drug classes. These drugs may seem promising, but time and rigorous research will ultimately determine their true potential.