Could the sweetened drinks we consume potentially be causing heightened anxiety? A new study conducted in 2022 on mice suggests that this may be a possibility worth exploring. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1981 and is commonly found in low-calorie foods and beverages. It is estimated that it is present in almost 5,000 different products, consumed by individuals of all ages.
The study involved providing a sample group of mice with water containing aspartame equivalent to 15 percent of the FDA’s recommended maximum daily amount for humans. The mice exhibited increased anxious behavior when subjected to specially designed mood tests. One of the most surprising findings was that these effects appeared to be passed down to the animals’ offspring, spanning up to two generations. This suggests that environmental factors and their long-term impact need to be taken into account when considering anxiety levels and behavior. Neuroscientist Pradeep Bhide from Florida State University emphasized the significance of this, stating, “What we see today is not only what’s happening today, but what happened two generations ago and maybe even longer.”
To measure anxiety levels, researchers conducted maze tests on multiple generations of mice and also examined the expression of genes in key parts of their nervous systems through RNA sequencing. Notably, significant changes were observed in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with anxiety regulation. Aspartame is known to break down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol when consumed, all of which can impact the central nervous system. Previous concerns have already been raised regarding potential adverse reactions to this sweetener in certain individuals.
When the mice were administered doses of diazepam, commonly known as Valium and used as an anxiety treatment in humans, anxiety-like behaviors ceased across all generations of mice. This medication helps regulate the same pathways in the brain that are affected by aspartame’s influence. Although measuring anxiety-like behaviors in mice cannot be directly equated to human emotions, the researchers observed significant changes in animal behavior that correlated with alterations in gene activity. Sara Jones, a graduate research assistant at Florida State University, described the anxiety-like trait as “robust” and unexpected, as the changes were usually more subtle.
This recent study builds upon previous research by the same team on the generational effects of nicotine consumption on mouse behavior. Similar to nicotine, it appears that aspartame consumption can result in epigenetic changes in the genes of mouse sperm cells, influencing subsequent generations. This suggests that not only individuals consuming the artificial sweetener may be at risk of increased anxiety, but also their children and grandchildren. The specific mechanisms behind this phenomenon are not yet fully understood, but emerging evidence supports the idea that epigenetic markings can persist across multiple generations.
Researchers have previously explored the potential links between aspartame and anxiety, and while plausible, conflicting findings have emerged. Some animal studies involving rats given artificial sweeteners found no changes in anxiety-like behavior, indicating the need for further investigation and understanding. Nevertheless, based on their findings, Jones, Bhide, and their colleagues emphasize the importance of exercising caution. Artificial sweeteners have previously been linked to cancer and alterations in gut bacteria leading to glucose intolerance. Considering the possibility of anxiety as another potential consequence adds to the growing list of factors to be considered.
While it is essential to replicate these findings in human beings, the presence of anxiety symptoms in mice provides a strong motivation to delve deeper into this topic. Further research is necessary to comprehensively explore the relationship between aspartame consumption and anxiety in humans. Identifying potential risks associated with artificial sweeteners is crucial for informing public health guidelines and making informed choices regarding dietary practices. The impact of what we consume goes beyond our present experiences and may influence future generations, making it more vital than ever to investigate and understand how it may shape our well-being.