Why erase addiction memories when they can help others?
According to one UK newspaper The Independent, dated the 9th July 2014 “Substance abusers could have their memories of drug addiction wiped in a bid to stop them using illegal narcotics, an award-winning neuroscientist has said.
According to new research by Cambridge University’s Professor Barry Everitt: disrupting the memory pathways of drug users could weaken powerful “compel” cravings, reduce “drug seeking behaviour” and open a new field of addiction therapy.
Professor Everitt told this week’s Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) how his research in rodents had found that targeting “memory plasticity” in rats was able to reduce the impact of maladaptive drug memories.
He added that this knowledge could offer a radical new method of treatment of drug addiction in humans, where researchers have already established that the path to addiction operates by shifting behavioural control from one area of the brain to another. This process sees drug use go from a voluntary act to a goal directed one, before finally becoming an compulsive act.
It was this process that Professor Everitt’s research is trying to “prevent” by targeting “maladaptive drug-related memories” to “prevent them from triggering drug-taking and replaces”.
In humans this could potentially be done by blocking brain chemicals.
“It’s the emotional intrusiveness of drug and fear memoirs that can be diminished, rather than an individual’s episodic memory that they did in the past take drugs or had a traumatic experience,” he told The Independent. “Conscious remembering is intact after consolidation blockade, but the emotional arousal [that] leads to drug seeking or distressing feelings of fear that are diminished.”
His research group discovered that when drug memories are reactivated by retrieval in the brain, they enter a pliable and unstable state. By putting rats in this state Professor Everitt was able to prevent memory reconsolidation by blocking brain chemicals or inactivating key genes.
In one study, the team diminished drug seeking behaviours by obstructing a brain chemical receptor linked to learning and memory, thus erasing memories, while in another study it found they could weaken drug use memories by altering a particular gene in the amygdala, a brain area processing emotional memory.
“Of course, inactivating genes in the brain is not feasible in humans,” the professor told FENS. “So we’re directing our research to better identify the underlying brain mechanisms of memory reconsolidation.”
He added: “We specifically examined how we could target these maladaptive drug-related memories, and prevent them from triggering drug-taking and relapse.”
So to recap, this new treatment is based on altering genes in rats!
There is no need to actually wipe an alcoholics’ addiction memories.
In fact it may be very counter productive to recovery from alcoholism. One 80 year old and hyper ecologically valid experiment into the mnemonics of “treating addiction memories” has shown that by honestly looking at the consequences of one’s actions as the result of one’s alcoholic drinking that the positive associations of previous drinking were reappraised in light of the damage done to oneself, one’s loved ones and family and society at large.
Addiction memories via this profound reappraisal were then more accurately processed in long term explicit memory. Implicit schematic memory was also altered fro a self schema in which one is a drinking alcoholic to one in which one is a recovering alcoholic.
So-called positive associations in long term episodic and explicit memory were, when labile via recall, then challenged and replaced by more accurate negative associations in long term memory – no memories needed to be erased just reappraised more accurately.
This type of ongoing experiment is happening on a daily basis at an AA meeting near you.
AA groups have found that memories need not be erased, with possible deleterious knock on effects on fear processing and amgydaloid performance, but rather memories simply need to be faced up to, and via honesty appraisal reprocessed more adaptively in long term memory.
This also means alcoholics in recovery can use their addiction memories in not only clearing away the wreckage of the past, repairing broken relationships with loved ones and society as a whole by making amends to those involved in this wreckage and also put the memories of the past to excellent therapeutic use by using it to help others with similar memory difficulties.
In fact even academic researchers have found and have demonstrated that abstinent, treatment seeking individuals also have a different cognitive or/and memory bias to active alcoholics. This has been illustrated in findings that the greater “accessibility” for positive vs. negative alcohol- associations in heavy vs. light drinkers was not found to be generalized to alcoholics in treatment vs. social drinkers (2). Rather, there was a trend for treated inpatients, motivated to attain abstinence, to show greater availability and accessibility for negative alcohol-related information.
This is how to use memories of addiction to the best possible use, instead of erasing them, wiping them our and hoping for the best, memories of our addiction can be used to great purpose in helping others. Also “addiction memory” is often activated by those who have not come to terms with their alcoholism and still want to drink. Unless some one has come to terms with their alcoholism little can be done, by erasing memories or otherwise. These are sticking plasters on a gaping wound. They will be replaced with other “addiction memory” as there an underlying condition to alcoholism ( we believe it to be emotional regulation and processing deficits) and it is this that drives this fear-based condition called alcoholism, memories are the result of this malady. Address the underlying conditions and the rest takes care of itself.
It is not brain regions which are the problem either such as activation of the amgydala, it is how this sometimes errant and overactive brain region in alcoholics is tamed via the serenity found in the AA program of recovery.
The compel parts of the brain, Everitt mentions, are activated by emotional distress, so treat the distress not the symptom of it. He also confuses implicit, automatic memory, with explicit, conscious memory. Either way they are both activated by stress/distress, and are thus both emotional memories. Again treat the emotional dysregulation, the primary problem not the secondary manifestation of the problem.
As I mentioned above, there has been an ongoing experiment into recovery from alcoholism going on for nearly 80 years now, there is a lab in most areas of town.
It would benefit the world and science, in particular, if neuroscientists would pop in for a coffee and check our our findings.
2. McCusker CG Cognitive biases and addiction: an evolution in theory and method. Addiction 2001;96:47–56.