Could Ozempic be used to treat addiction? Studies hint yes, but questions remain.

In animal studies, the weight-loss drug Ozempic has shown promise as an anti-addiction medicine. Whether it could work the same in humans remains to be seen.

The diabetes drug Ozempic has become a household name as a powerful weight-loss treatment.

Some people say the drugs have helped them do more than lose weight – people struggling with addiction are reporting that the drug has caused them to completely lose interest in alcohol, drugs, and even obsessive shopping habits, The Atlantic reported in May. Though these anecdotes may seem random, they are actually supported by more than 20 years of research, experts told Live Science.

Animal studies have found that drugs like semaglutide, which mimic a gut hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1, seem to suppress drug-seeking behaviors.

Other studies in humans have found that the drugs, called GLP-1 agonists, could help some people with alcohol use disorder drink less and people who smoke drop cigarettes.

Animal studies are not always reliable in determining if a drug will work the same way in people, and formal clinical trials testing GLP-1 agonists as addiction treatments are ongoing.

Scientists have reason to be optimistic, with research pointing to the drugs’ effect on a major system in the brain involved in addiction: the reward pathway.

“Unfortunately, the translation from animals to humans is always challenging,” said Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a physician-scientist at the National Institutes of Health who studies the effects of GLP-1 agonists on addiction.

He said scientists who study GLP-1 agonists “Are definitely excited” about the drug’s potential to help people with addiction.

As early as the 1980s, researchers recognized that GLP-1 wasn’t produced only in the gut but also in parts of the brain, specifically in a part of the medulla, or lower brain stem, according to a 1986 study.

During rewarding experiences, whether they come from a good taste or an addictive drug, structures in the mesolimbic pathway activate and send dopamine to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

The hormone, along with the artificial version of it found in drugs like semaglutide, limits the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, often called a “Happy chemical.”

Food, water, sweets, and addictive drugs all “Cause a release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens in the brain,” said Patricia “Sue” Grigson, director of the Penn State Addiction Center for Translation.

Studies on animal behavior also support the use of GLP-1 agonists to combat addiction.

Grigson has been involved with several studies with the same basic design: A mouse or rat is trained to expect a drug, like alcohol or heroin, to be administered in response to certain cues.

When the animal gets the cues but not the drug, the ones given GLP-1 agonists are less persistent in trying to seek out the drug.

Animals that receive a “Relapse” dose of the drug after having it withdrawn are even less likely to seek it out, Grigson said.

A 2022 study Grigson co-authored showed that when given the GLP-1 agonist liraglutide, rats were less likely to seek out heroin in response to drug-associated cues, stress, or a dose of the drug itself, which would also normally prompt further drug-seeking.

Tests of drugs like semaglutide for human addiction have been limited, but researchers have seen some promising results.

In a 2021 study, people who took a GLP-1 agonist called exenatide in addition to using a nicotine patch were more likely to successfully quit smoking than those who used only the patch.

She also said unpublished research, led by a student of hers, exploring how GLP-1 agonists affect the brain suggests they work to treat addiction in two ways: by lessening the brain’s reward associated with taking an addictive substance and by decreasing the desire for the drug during withdrawal.

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