Can We End Addiction by Erasing Memories?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Can We End Addiction by Erasing Memories?

Despite sounding like a plot straight out of a James Bond film, one Cambridge University scientist is hoping to tackle the disease of addiction by erasing previous memories of drug use. According to research conducted by Cambridge University Professor Barry J. Everitt, the future of addiction therapy could lie within the brain’s memory pathways.

Crazy as it sounds; this idea has some serious potential.

Crushing Cravings

Time and again, experts have shown that drug cravings are exceptionally powerful. Drug-associated memories (a.k.a. cravings) are programmed responses to the environmental signals that life experiences have connected to drug use. These strong, vivid memories are linked to the effect drugs have on the brain’s neurochemistry.

Memories of the pleasurable experience are later triggered by the sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts associated with compulsive drug use.

When drugs are abused, a huge neurotransmitter release takes place in the brain. It’s this release that ultimately creates the “high” or sense of euphoria associated with drug use. Memories of the pleasurable experience are later triggered by the sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts associated with compulsive drug use. Cravings, which can last for years, prompt addicts to desperately seek out drugs, chasing the memory of that high – no matter the costs. Professor Everitt believes wiping drug-associated memories can drastically decrease the prevalence of addiction.

A Look at the Science

While speaking at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), Europe’s largest neuroscience conference, Professor Everitt presented research that his team conducted on rodents. By targeting the “memory plasticity” of these animals, the group was able to diminish the impact of maladaptive drug memories. In theory, wiping these memories might offer a new approach for human addiction treatment.

According to Professor Everitt, when drug memories are accessed, they are essentially reactivated – almost like opening a flood gate over and over again. At this point, an addict’s mental state becomes extremely unstable. The Cambridge research team found that, while in this unstable state, memory reconsolidation could be prevented in the rats by either blocking brain chemicals or inactivating genes.

…the team successfully diminished drug-seeking behaviors by blocking a brain chemical receptor crucial to learning and memory.
In one of Professor Everitt’s studies, the team successfully diminished drug-seeking behaviors by blocking a brain chemical receptor crucial to learning and memory. In the end, the rat’s memories were erased and they no longer sought out their drugs of choice.

In another study, the same team was able to weaken drug memories by altering one specific gene in the amygdala, an area of the brain where emotional memory is processed.

Memory Plasticity at Work

Memory plasticity is not a new field of study. In fact, a wealth of research has been conducted on the neural pathways of the brain. However, the Cambridge study is the first to suggest we can treat addiction by essentially erasing memories. With further research, Professor Everitt believes we can develop medications that are tailored to chemically interrupt the addiction-related memory processes in humans.


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