Messing With Memories to Curb Drug Cravings


If your counselor treats your drug addiction by showing you nasty drug-related images, he or she is using a method called “extinction.”

Viewing these unpleasant images helps addicts stop associating drugs with feeling high.

Researchers added a new twist to extinction by combining it with memory retrieval and disruption. Retrieving a memory simply means to recall it or bring it to mind. Disruption refers to altering an individual’s experience of a memory. The disruption weakens the memory's physical and emotional influence.

Memory disruption can be done by administering drugs, but there is a less invasive way to use this technique.

Researchers found that if drug addicts had memory retrieval sessions before their extinction treatments, the extinction was more effective. It seems that by bringing a person's drug memories to mind before an extinction session, the extinction images have a disrupting effect on the drug memories’ power to stir cravings.

The Study in Brief

  1. Some unfortunate rats were turned into either morphine or cocaine addicts. They were taught to associate their drug high with light and sound cues. The light and sound cues triggered their memory retrieval (memory of feeling high).
  2. Rats were given short memory retrieval sessions 10 minutes, one hour or six hours before they had an extinction session. Extinction sessions consisted of the light and sound cues, but no drugs were given.
  3. The rats that had memory retrieval sessions 10 minutes or one hour prior to extinction treatment were less likely to use drugs again – whether the drug was offered or left available.

The Human Trials

In the human version of this experiment, heroin addicts were shown videos of nature scenes and of heroin use. They rated their craving level after seeing the videos.

The addicts who had a memory-retrieval session 10 minutes before extinction (seeing the videos) had lower cravings than those who had no retrieval session or had one six hours before the videos.

These human study subjects were patients confined to a rehab hospital, so the study did not determine how much disrupting memories helps individuals avoid using in the outside world. However, the research continues.

Source: Discover Magazine


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