Oreos may be as addictive as cocaine – to lab rats, anyway. That’s according to new research from Connecticut College that compared rats’ reactions to the sandwich cookies and to drugs.

In a study designed to consider the potential addictiveness of foods with high fat and sugar content, Connecticut College Professor Joseph Schroeder and his students found eating the cookies activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure center” than exposure to cocaine or morphine.

They also found that the association rats formed between Oreos and a feeding chamber were as strong as associations to places where drugs were dispensed.

“Our research supports the theory that high-fat, high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do,” Schroeder said. “It may explain why some people can’t resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them.”

Schroeder, an assistant professor of neuroscience, will present the research next month at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, Calif.

The research was the inspiration of neuroscience major Jamie Honohan, who undertook a project through the college’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy where students pick a social injustice and do research related to it.

Honohan, who graduated in May, was interested in the prevalence of obesity in lower-income communities. “Our goal was to design a study to explore the hypothesis that high-fat, high-sugar foods have the same addictive potential as drugs of abuse,” Honohan said.

As for why Oreos were chosen rather than a high-fat, high-sugar rat chow, Schroeder said, “We specifically wanted to choose a food that was palatable to humans so that we could make a direct correlation from rats to a problem facing humans.”

Honohan said she also wanted to use a product that was common in grocery stores. And, she noted, some research has showed that rats like Oreos.

The study was conducted by setting up two adjoining chambers for the rats. In one experiment, rats were given Oreo cookies in one space and rice cakes in the other. It was clear, Honohan said, that the rats preferred the Oreos – splitting the cookies apart and devouring the cream first and then going on to eat the cookies.