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The science behind our desire for salt

Melbourne scientists have uncovered how brains are wired to seek salty foods, in a recent animal trial.

In a trial published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science behavioural neuroscience researcher Craig Smith shows how a specific circuit in the brain’s opioid system is responsible for making mice seek out salt.

The discovery points the way toward drug treatments that could reduce our intake of high salt foods, a press release from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health says.

“Our bodies have multiple forms of ‘natural opioids’ – those molecules released after you enjoy a particularly energetic session of exercise (or love-making), drinking water when thirsty or eating salt after sweating,” Dr Smith says in the press release.

Using mice that had salt removed from their diet, scientists used three separate opioid blockers to work out which specific circuit was activated when the mice drank salty water.

“Two blockers did nothing. But a third, naloxonazine, drastically reduced the amount of salt consumed by the animals,” Dr Smith says.

As well as discovering the exact opioid receptor system involved in salt reward, the team has also identified the part of the brain where it happens. This allowed the researchers to block opioids only in that particular brain region, and the salt-depleted mice were no longer interested in drinking salty water.

These findings open the way for further investigation into this salt-seeking circuit in humans, to then develop targeted drugs to inhibit salt craving and promote healthier dietary choices, Dr Smith says.


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Photo credit: The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health


Date modified: 20 July 2020
First published: November 2016


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