Tag: Chemistry

Sugar changes the chemistry of your brain


Anyone who has desperately searched their kitchen cabinets for a piece of forgotten chocolate knows that the desire for palatable food can be hard to control. But is it really addiction?

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The idea of food addiction is a very controversial topic among scientists. Researchers from Aarhus University have delved into this topic and examined what happens in the brains of pigs when they drink sugar water. The conclusion is clear: sugar influences brain reward circuitry in ways similar to those observed when addictive drugs are consumed. The results have just been published in the journal Scientific Reports.


“There is no doubt that sugar has several physiological effects, and there are many reasons why it is not healthy. But I have been in doubt of the effects sugar has on our brain and behaviour, I had hoped to be able to kill a myth. ” says Michael Winterdahl, Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University and one of the main authors of the work.

The publication is based on experiments done using seven pigs receiving two liters of sugar water daily over a 12-day period. To map the consequences of the sugar intake, the researchers imaged the brains of the pigs at the beginning of the experiment, after the first day, and after the 12th day of sugar.

“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake,” says Winterdahl.


When we experience something meaningful, the brain rewards us with a sense of enjoyment, happiness and well-being. It can happen as a result of natural stimuli, such as sex or socializing, or from learning something new. Both “natural” and “artificial” stimuli, like drugs, activate the brain’s reward system, where neurotransmitters like dopamine and opioids are released, Winterdahl explains.


We chase the rush

“If sugar can change the brain’s reward system after only twelve days, as we saw in the case of the pigs, you can imagine that natural stimuli such as learning or social interaction are pushed into the background and replaced by sugar and/or other ‘artificial’ stimuli. We’re all looking for the rush from dopamine, and if something gives us a better or bigger kick, then that’s what we choose” explains the researcher.

When examining whether a substance like sugar is addictive, one typically studies the effects on the rodent brain. ¨It would, of course, be ideal if the studies could be done in humans themselves, but humans are hard to control and dopamine levels can be modulated by a number of different factors. They are influenced by what we eat, whether we play games on our phones or if we enter a new romantic relationship in the middle of the trial, with potential for great variation in the data. The pig is a good alternative because its brain is more complex than a rodent and gyrated like human and large enough for imaging deep brain structures using human brain scanners. The current study in minipigs introduced a well-controlled set-up with the only variable being the absence or presence of sugar in the diet.

Background for the results:

  • The study involved imaging the pig brain before and after sugar intake.
  • Partners involved in the study: Michael Winterdahl, Ove Noer, Dariusz Orlowski, Anna C. Schacht, Steen Jakobsen, Aage K. O. Alstrup, Albert Gjedde and Anne M. Landau.
  • The study was financed by a grant from AUFF to Anne Landau.
  • The scientific article has been published in Scientific Reports and is freely available online: doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-53430-9

Marijuana Detector


Forensic Chemist Detects Marijuana-Use Based on Sweat Test

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Forensic chemist Jan Halámek is proving that our own perspiration not only gives away how drunk we are – but if we are high, too.

Through new research, published in December’s edition of ACS Sensors, the Halámek lab has captured the ability to detect a person’s marijuana-use based on contents in a small skin secretion that can be taken from fingerprints or any other sweat glands.


This discovery builds on the lab’s concept for a roadside testing kit to be used by law enforcement. In November, Halámek introduced a prototype for a color-changing test strip that detects blood alcohol content (BAC) based on ethanol levels in sweat.

“Currently there is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to marijuana use and operating machinery,” said Halámek, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University at Albany. “While many states are moving to various stages of legalization, the focus is mostly on possession and in-home use. There are no reliable roadside devices being used to test for marijuana-impaired driving.”

“What makes the use of sweat as a biometric unique is that it is non-invasive. No blood needs to be drawn for a sample,” Halámek added. “Our test can be done instantaneously, on the side of the road, which eliminates any possibility of tampering.”

How It Works


Similar to the alcohol test strip, Halámek’s analysis to detect marijuana relies on a color change. However, instead of ethanol levels in the sweat sample, this test reacts to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the main psychoactive component found in marijuana plants and its extracted forms including liquids (THC oils) and edibles (brownies, cookies, gummies, etc.) 


The analysis works by using an antibody that quantifies the THC metabolite.  When less of a color change is observed, this means a higher amount of THC metabolite is present in the sweat sample.

To put their discovery to the test, Halámek, along with his team of UAlbany graduate students, surveyed eight volunteers on their recent marijuana use. Four were users; four were non-users. The group then provided their fingerprints on a plastic wrap that was cut out and subject to analysis.

Results showed a clear difference in observed color change between the two groups.


“While drugs are a new topic for the Halámek lab, it is something we plan to continue diving into,” Halámek said. “Much of the fundamentals are the same as our previous research in terms of the collection, extraction, and use of sweat as a biometric.”

The Halámek Lab


Along with its roadside testing kit research, the Halámek lab has published a number of other groundbreaking forensics discoveries. In 2017, his team released a concept paper for a sweat-based authentication to unlock mobile and wearable devices. The lab has also released numerous studies on the use of physical crime scene evidence, such as fingerprints or blood residue, to quickly identify key characteristics of culprits.


Halámek joined UAlbany in 2013 and has been funded through numerous fellowships and a three-year grant from the Department of Justice and National Institute of Justice to develop non-invasive sensing concepts.

You can learn more about Halámek by visiting his research website and expert page.