A new study found that using a tanning bed has a reward effect in the brain that's similar to what's seen in drug addicts, which bolsters the theory that tanning is physically addictive. However, it's still unclear if that means tanning is addictive, or just pleasurable. At stake is our ability to make fun of the Jersey Shore cast's odd hue with abandon.
Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center say the finding may explain why people continue to use tanning beds despite the risk of skin cancer. According to ScienceBlog:
"In this study, participants used tanning beds on two separate occasions: one time they were exposed to ultraviolet radiation and another time special filters blocked exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Participants did not know on which session they received the real or the filtered ultraviolet exposure. At each visit, participants were asked before and after each session how much they felt like tanning. Participants were also administered a compound that allowed scientists to measure brain blood flow while they were tanning."
When tanners were under the ultraviolet radiation, not the filtered light, their brains showed activation in the regions associated with pleasure and reward. Lead author Dr. Bryon Adinoff said:
"Using tanning beds has rewarding effects in the brain so people may feel compelled to persist in the behavior even though it's bad for them ... The implication is, ‘If it's rewarding, then could it also be addictive?' It's an important question in the field."
While Adinoff said the answer isn't clear, this led to many headlines like, "People Addicted To Tanning Just Like Drugs Or Booze." Time's Maia Szalavitz doubts this is the case. She points out that there are biological advantages to enjoying sunlight, such as raising vitamins D levels. However, Szalavitz argues that just because an activity is pleasurable, doesn't mean it's addictive:
"Many of us clearly take risks to enjoy tanning, which is one potential sign of addiction. But saying that tanning is "addictive" because the reward areas of people's brains light up in response to UV light is a little like saying we like sugar because it tastes sweet. It's a tautology. Anything that you perceive as enjoyable will activate the pleasure regions regions: if it didn't, it couldn't be experienced as pleasant."
For the time being we still don't know if tanning is an actual addiction, or if people just continue doing it because they don't believe their chances of getting skin cancer are that high. It's possible that we should have more sympathy for Snooki and the Situation's debilitating tanning addiction, though there's a good chance that like most of their antics, the root cause is just foolishness.