Scientists Uncovers What Sugar Does to Our Brains

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Ever had that buzz after some sugar, be it from that black forest cake or peanut butter and jelly ice cream, maybe you even feel hungrier or like you now possess the overactive energy of a Maltese puppy?

Well, Monica Dus, an award-winning molecular biologist from the University of Michigan, specializing in fruit fly genetics, got curious as to why that even happens.

Sugar is one taste that has the ability to make us feel like addicts, craving to have just one more piece of key lime cheesecake or another chocolate chip cookie. But how?

Some argue that sugar can help relieve stress levels and release feel good hormones, while the body craving sugar could also be a sign that there is less of it in our bodies and there are also possibilities that eating less protein is what induces those sugar cravings. However, what makes us binge and not know when to stop, is what Monica hopes to uncover.1

Monica got curious about how animals control themselves from overeating, after her two Bichon Frise dogs, Cupcake and Sprinkles managed to chow down a bag of dog treats when she was away and went overboard with it. What surprised Monica the most was how these tiny little 15-pound canines got big bellies for three days because they could not control themselves from finishing the whole bag of dog treats.


After this she decided to conduct a study on how the brain controls how much we eat and why, what consuming excessive amounts of sugar can do to our brain’s chemistry, and how that leads to eating too much and then getting obese.

Monica believed that a high sugar diet does alter the brain, so controlling the calories or amounts of it is pointless. What interested her more was how the sugar changes the molecules of the brain in the long-run, which eventually motivates eating more than one can and gain weight.2

Just as how the recent years have been forming links between two factors such as smoking and lung cancer, birth control pills and depression, Monica felt she could find such an association between high sugar diets and obesity.

Her research attracted a lot of minds and so she was granted $1.5 million, as a five-year New Innovator award from the National Institutes of Health, known to be given only to those who are early in their careers but have pioneered in something innovative and impactful. Likewise, she is also a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, which is a program made for researchers who dare to go the extra mile and take risks for an idea that has promise but has been less explored.


In Monica’s study along with her partner Christina May, they are studying the brains of fruit flies who have been on a consistent sugar diet while comparing it with fruit flies on a normal diet. After inducing the fruit fly’s mouth with sugar, they then record and observe how its brain processes the sugar.

The results showed that the flies who were given the high-sugar diet had ingested more calories in total, than the flies on the normal fruit fly diet. What they also observed is that it is not the sugar alone that adds calories but having a steady amount of sugar induces cravings, puts the brain out of whack, so you end up eating more than you usually would or need.

Monica is even working across departments with Jenna Clem, a specialist in gene studies about how the genetic structure of the brain, including environmental changes controls the eating behavior of the fruit flies.

Although there is still much to be discovered Monica is on the scientific journey to finding out more, starting with publishing some of the preliminary results. If she can give evidence about sugar truly leading to obesity, it may help tackle the problem one sugary food or drink at a time.

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