Wiping Memories to Treat Addiction
A professor and director of research at Cambridge University has completed research that could lead to a dramatic new method of addiction treatment: targeting and eliminating memories related to addiction.
Professor Barry Everitt, one of three winners of the 25th annual Neuronal Plasticity Prize of the Fondation Ipsen, recently revealed his research targeting the memory plasticity of rodents and its effect on their addictive substance use. Much of Everitt’s career as a behavioral neuroscientist has been directed toward understanding how learning and memory relate to addictive drug use.
Repeated drug use and drug relapse are driven in large part by strong memories connected to drug use. Memories play a critical role in triggering the brain processes that drive compulsive drug-seeking behavior. Everitt’s experiments were designed to see whether targeting those memories could help stifle the compulsion to continue taking drugs, or, for those in recovery, the compulsion to relapse and resume drug use.
Two Different Approaches to Eliminating Memories
In separate experiments involving rodents, Everitt’s research team used two methods of suppressing memories to see whether they could reduce drug-seeking behavior in their subjects.
In the first experiment, the researchers interfered with a chemical receptor in the brains of the rodents. This chemical receptor is a critical part of the brain pathway that drives learning and memory. Without this chemical receptor, the memories related to drug use were erased.
In the second experiment, the research team deactivated a gene in the brain’s amygdala region, which deals with emotional memory. With this method, memories were not entirely erased, but they were weakened and prevented from reconsolidating.
Both experiments demonstrated success at reducing drug-seeking behavior among rodents that had developed compulsive drug habits. The results left Everitt and his team hopeful that similar methods could one day be employed to treat humans with substance use disorders.
Memories Are Vulnerable at Point of Retrieval
One of the key discoveries made during these experiments was that memories are in a vulnerable state when the brain first retrieves them. Their increased “plasticity” (adaptability and mold-ability) makes them susceptible to alterations or inhibitions that prevent them from having their full impact.
Of the two methods, disruption of the brain’s chemical receptors appears to have the most promise for treating substance use disorders in humans. In his report on the new research, Everitt noted that altering genes in human brains is “not feasible.”
That being the case, Everitt thinks future research in this field should be directed at understanding how memories are retrieved and re-solidified in people, and how that process might be inhibited in humans.
Treatment Would Be Careful and Complex
While the prospect of being able to partially delete addiction from a person’s brain is exciting, it is still a long way off. The process is also likely to be somewhat involved; people dealing with addiction will not be able to pop a pill and instantly zap their addiction-related memories.
Further research could eventually lead to the creation of a medication to inhibit maladaptive drug memories, but the process of administering the medication would have to take place in a carefully monitored clinical setting while addicts revisit their most powerful drug memories
Method Has Potential for Treating Other Illnesses
Nevertheless, the possibilities presented by this kind of therapy could improve treatment options for illnesses other than addiction as well. Post-traumatic stress disorder involves painful episodes during which sufferers relive one or more traumatic experiences. Anxiety disorders also frequently involve fear-related memories that cause people to experience strong anxiety or even panic during situations that recall those memories.
Eliminating such memories, or reducing the emotional impact of such memories, could go a long way toward helping people dealing with these disorders regain control over their involuntary and sometimes debilitating responses.