Most drugs of abuse increase dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), and do so every time as a pharmacological response. Palatable food also releases accumbens-shell DA, but in naïve rats the effect can wane during a long meal and disappears with repetition. Under select dietary circumstances, sugar can have effects similar to a drug of abuse. Rats show signs of DA sensitization and opioid dependence when given intermittent access to sucrose, such as alterations in DA and mu-opioid receptors, cross-sensitization with amphetamine and alcohol, and behavioral and neurochemical signs of naloxone-precipitated withdrawal. The present experiment asks whether sucrose-dependent rats release DA each time they binge. We also predict that acetylcholine (ACh), which rises as the end of a meal, will be delayed in rats with intermittent access to sucrose. To create dependency, the experimental group (Daily Intermittent Sucrose) was maintained on a diet of 12-h food deprivation that extended 4 h into the dark, followed by 12-h access to a 10% sucrose solution and chow, daily, for 21 days. As the main result, these rats gradually increased their sucrose intake from 37 to 112 ml per day (from 13 to 20 ml in the first hour of access), and repeatedly increased extracellular DA to 130% of baseline as measured in the NAc shell by microdialysis during the first hour of sucrose access on day 1, day 2 and day 21. Three control groups failed to show a significant increase in extracellular DA on day 21: Sucrose only for 1 h on days 1 and 21 (Sucrose Twice), ad libitum access to sucrose and chow (Daily Ad libitum Sucrose), and intermittent chow instead of sucrose (Daily Intermittent Chow). Acetylcholine measured at the same time as DA, increased significantly toward the end and after each test meal in all groups.
In the Daily Intermittent Sucrose group, the highest ACh levels (133%) occurred during the first sample after the sucrose meal ended. In summary, sucrose-dependent animals have a delayed ACh satiation response, drink more sucrose, and release more DA than sucrose- or binge-experienced, but non-dependent animals. These results suggest another neurochemical similarity between intermittent bingeing on sucrose and drugs of abuse: both can repeatedly increase extracellular DA in the NAc shell.