August 20, 2008
Anti-Addiction Drug Causes Weight Loss

On more than one occasion I've found myself defending drug addicts while arguing with someone who is obese. Basically I argued that their own inability to ignore their hunger is very similar to a drug addict's inabilty to ignore the craving for another dose. Each person who I made this argument to responded like I was insulting them. But the evidence strongly suggests common mechanisms involved in food and drug cravings. Now a new study finds that a drug under development against cocaine and meth causes weight loss in rats.

UPTON, NY -- Vigabatrin, a medication proposed as a potential treatment for drug addiction by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, also leads to rapid weight loss and reduced food intake according to a new animal study from the same research group. The study will be published online August 20, 2008, by the journal Synapse. Vigabatrin is currently undergoing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved Phase II clinical trials against cocaine and methamphetamine addiction across the U.S.

In the current study, animals genetically bred to be obese experienced a loss of up to 19 percent of their total weight while non-obese animals lost 12 to 20 percent following short-term vigabatrin administration.

This might seem like good news for people who weigh too much. But it might also be bad news for coke and meth addicts. Will they eat enough while on this drug? Maybe so. Then again, if the drug works and they stop their drug addiction then that's a huge benefit.

"Our results appear to demonstrate that vigabatrin induced satiety in these animals," said Amy DeMarco, who led the study, working in the laboratory of Brookhaven Lab senior scientist Stephen Dewey. Dewey first identified vigabatrin as a potential addiction treatment and has conducted more than 20 years of preclinical research with this promising medication.

Earlier studies at Brookhaven Lab found a strong connection between obesity and addiction, including similar changes in the brains of the obese and those addicted to drugs like cocaine. Based on these connections, Dewey hypothesized that vigabatrin would quench food cravings in the lab rats.

This drug alters people's basic desires. If our desires can be altered so easily do we really have free will?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 20 09:52 PM  Brain Appetite

Larry said at August 21, 2008 8:47 AM:

According to human studies one side effect is weight gain for 5% of subjects. Weight loss is not a listed side effect.

Nick G said at August 21, 2008 2:32 PM:

hmmm. Weight loss would only be a "side effect" if it happened to people who didn't want to lose weight. This study suggests a preferential action for the overweight.

"If our desires can be altered so easily do we really have free will?"

I think we all agree that food cravings reduce one's free will - so we know we don't have full free will under the status quo. This drug doesn't appear to alter people's desires for specific weight levels. On the contrary, it appears likely to to increase people's ability consciously choose their weight. Sounds like an increase in free will.

It seems to me that the discovery of ways to increase free will through chemistry both reminds us of what we already know (that our free will is currently limited) and offers the promises of improved free will.

Seems like a problem in the definition of "desire": the desires being altered by this drug aren't generally considered a part of "free will".

hmmm. Say the words "free will" over and over again, and they start to sound funny.... :)

gerald said at August 21, 2008 3:56 PM:

Clearly obese people need to quit food cold turkey. Where are all the comments about how it is all fat peoples fault and they just need more self control? I love the point that when technology allows us to remake ourselves that we will have free will.

gerald said at August 21, 2008 3:58 PM:

also remember they are coming off meth. that might explain the weight gain.

Fly said at August 21, 2008 5:25 PM:

re: Free will

Motivation is based on dopamine release. Our brain compares what did happen with what we expected or wanted to happen. When the outcome is "good", dopamine is released and all connections associated with that outcome are strengthened. I.e., behaviors are re-enforced. Otherwise dopamine is not released and the behaviors are inhibited. E.g., in Parkinson's Disease, dopamine releasing neurons have died so there is little dopamine release and so all behavior becomes inhibited and the patient becomes non-reactive. Addictive drugs stimulate dopamine release which causes pleasure and re-enforcement of drug seeking behavior.

Without dopamine release we wouldn't "choose" to do anything so we would have no free will. Any actions that directly lead to dopamine release (e.g., a mouse pushing a lever that causes dopamine release in the ventral tegmental area of the brain) will result in an overpowering compulsion to perform that action and so free will is negated. (Or, depending on your interpretation of free will, we would "choose" to continually perform the actions that released dopamine.) At the most basic level dopamine release is the mechanism by which we exert our free will over time. In a healthy human brain the dopamine release happens indirectly based on the brain's evaluation as to whether previous decisions led to a "good" outcome. (This evaluation is only partially accessible to our conscious brain. I.e., consciously we may think that breaking a diet is bad but our appetite center feels otherwise and the evaluation center cares more about what our apetite center feels than what our conscious mind says. Hence, we can be consciously aware of making bad decisions without understanding why we made those decisions.)

Randall Parker said at August 21, 2008 7:46 PM:


Can we give ourselves more free will? It is an interesting question.

Probably we can reduce the amount of compulsion we feel so that more of our decisions can get taken by the prefrontal cortex. That'll at least increase our feeling of having free will.

Imagine a general state of enhanced feeling of well being combined with the ability to engage in assorted pleasurable activities without feeling the need to engage in said pleasurable activities. That'll probably be the ideal state of mind to strive for.

Also, not all compulsions are for destructive activities. The problem with eating too much food or continuing to use meth or heroin is that these activities cause destructive effects. Imagine being able to tune your compulsions so that you do only constructive things as a result of compulsions.

Fat Man said at August 21, 2008 8:33 PM:

Bring it on, even if have change my nick.

Gerald Hibbs said at August 21, 2008 10:39 PM:

I was posting from my phone before so couldn't talk much. I agree with you Randall that is it becoming blindingly obvious that people who think that humans have pure free will are astoundingly wrong. There is not a week without another major announcement of studies confirming that a myriad of human behaviors are influenced -- if not determined -- by our genetics.

We look for a mate based on their odor but if women take The Pill their tastes change. Our predilection toward various addictions is being mapped. How much we trust. Level of motivation. The types of faces we trust. Our political affiliation. Personality type. Temperament. Probably our attraction to different brands of religion. These are just the tip of the iceberg and our genes control more than our eye color my friend. Often it is not purely determined by genetics but such a strong influence as "The Alcoholic Gene", as I've heard it called, cannot be sneezed at when the consequences are so devastating.

Note the case of a very religious person who had a brain damaging injury and his faith fled. Something most people consider their most fundamental aspect is their faith, a trait they view as linked more to their soul, and it can be turned off by bumping your head. I would bet money it is genetic and I am a devout Christian.

The poor souls whose genetics combined with molestation turn their sexual desires toward children or only being able to be turned on by pain. Our sexuality is one big twisted puzzle but some people have these base desires they just can not contain even in the face of the humiliation, ostracism, knowing it is wrong, jail and even the death penalty. Such people have literally castrated themselves and yet they still burned with a desire that can only be sated by doing something even they consider evil.

Truly our genetics are a blessing and a curse and we all have our crosses to bear. But, some of us have burdens that are truly crushing.

But, when we can control our genetics -- not to mention the possibility of uploading -- we will be able to choose all of these traits. Where now we don't have true free will one day we will be able to literally choose what we want to be as a human being. There will be no more fighting against bad habits or perverted desires. No more working to overcome genetic deficits. I think that that comment about finally being able to have free will was the most important thing about the future I have ever heard. Endless supplies of materials or food is nice. Robots and AI will be helpful. But all that is about mere materialism and is merely a variation of a theme we are already exploring since the industrial revolution. But, that one day we will be able to change what it means to be human and to truly chart our own course free of all these pernicious influences for the first time in human history. Now, that is revolutionary.

Maureen said at August 22, 2008 10:00 AM:

If your tongue can be altered so easily, do you really have free speech?

You're making a category error.

Randall Parker said at August 22, 2008 4:56 PM:


What category error?

Katyusha said at August 30, 2009 2:11 PM:

Year-old post, but I wanted to point out that vigabatrin (known as brand Sabril) is unlikely to prove useful for addiction or weight loss due to a certain dire side effect: Blindness.

It inhibits GABA transaminase (GABA-T) which somehow messes with the optic nerve in at least 25% or more of people who take it (I've seen studies saying 50%), leading to a freakishly high proportion of patients getting "visual field defects" of one kind or another, up to full blindness.

Vigabatrin is used in very rare cases of uncontrollable pediatric seizures (like Lennox-Gastaut) where the risks of blindness have to be weighed against the risks of a child's brain being fried. It's a nasty calculus that has to be terrible for any parent.

I don't know if super-low doses would lower the risk of visual defects with vigabatrin but I don't see how something this dangerous could be approved for addiction or weight loss. Most addicts would prefer their drugs to losing vision. Same with obesity.

Interestingly enough, we've been down this road before with other anti-epilepsy drugs (Topamax, Zonegran - both used for severe migraine, epilepsy, and bipolar cycling) that seemed promising because they can suppress appetite so powerfully. It turns out they just aren't worth it for vanity dieting. The cognitive/other side effects can be brutal and the weight loss is far from guaranteed.

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