Tweaking memories related to drug abuse may keep addicts from relapsing, a new study published Friday in Science journal reported.
A group of Chinese scientists found that memories that connect drug-related “cues” such as needles or cigarettes to the pleasurable effects of drugs play a large role in former drug users’ relapses, BBC News reported.
Lin Lu of the National Institute of Drug Dependence at Peking University in Beijing and his team combined traditional memory “extinction” procedures with a process called memory reconsolidation, Medical Daily reported.
The scientists worked with 66 former heroin addicts, 22 of which had not taken the drug for an average of 11 years. Half the group was initially shown a short video of drug use to “open” their memory window, followed by “extinction sessions” where they interacted with more cues of heroin use, including handling fake heroin, Science News reported.
The other half of the group were initially shown a video of the countryside, which would not open the window, and then the drug-related visuals, BBC reported.
The researchers also varied the time between the initial reminder and the “extinction” sessions: Some people waited just 10 minutes, and others waited six hours.
During tests done one, 30, and 180 days later, the researchers found that levels of drug cravings were lower in those who had their memory window “opened” by a visual trigger and then experienced the drug-related cues 10 minutes later. Those participants also showed less of a blood pressure rise in response to seeing drug paraphernalia compared with people who hadn’t received the reminder, Science News reported. Furthermore, those who waited six hours before undergoing the extinction didn’t get the same effect.
These experiments were also backed up by further tests on “addicted” rats, BBC reported.
“Research has shown that memories can be changed more permanently if they are retrieved first,” David Epstein, a researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Maryland, told New Scientist. “It is a bit like opening a document on your computer, making some changes, then resaving it.”
“Full clinical studies are needed, but it could be really important for treatment of addiction,” Dr. Amy Milton, who researches memory and addiction at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC. “There is no theoretical reason it couldn’t apply to other addictions such as alcohol. That’s obviously very exciting.”
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