Scientists Able to Erase Unwanted Memories
Inevitability of Relapse
For many addicts, coming clean, going through rehab, and re-establishing a drug-free life are not easy, but doable. With the right treatment, caring and experienced professionals, and the support of family and friends, many addicts are able to give up their habits. We say that these addicts are in recovery. They are not recovered because they live with the specter of relapse for the rest of their lives.
To relapse means to start using again after a period of sobriety. Nearly every addict in recovery goes through at least one relapse. Too often these episodes lead to a long period of abuse and terrible consequences. If researchers could come up with a way to help addicts stop relapsing, many more would have successful recoveries and be able to live normal lifestyles.
Relapse and Memory
What makes relapsing so inevitable is the power of memory and associations. Drug and alcohol abusers spent a lot of time before going into recovery, sometimes decades, making associations between aspects of their environments and abusing substances. In other words, there are many memories associated with drug use, and they are very powerful.
When an addict comes out of rehab, all of those memories and associations are waiting for him. They are at home, at the bar, at a friend’s house, on the street, and most importantly, in the addict’s own head. Being around all of the things and experiencing the emotions that are associated with drug and alcohol use make the recovering addict crave those substances. Giving in to the cravings is something that many end up doing. If those associations could be weakened, or the memories erased, addicts would have a much better shot at avoiding relapse.
Erasing Memories for Meth Users
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida have been working on targeting very specific memories and associations in recovering meth addicts so that they can avoid the cravings for the drug, and the subsequent relapse. Associations that lead to cravings are especially powerful for people addicted to methamphetamine. Meth addicts are often intensely reminded of the drug by simple things like gum, money and cigarette smoke.
The Scripps researchers have successfully erased drug-associated memories in lab mice and rats. Most importantly, they were able to be selective about the memories they erased and left other memories intact. The lab animals were addicted to meth, but had associated memories wiped out via a drug that targets certain proteins in the brain. Tests showed that the mice and rats lost memories associated with the drugs, but not others. When given the choice to consume the drug afterward, they had little to no interest. The researchers do not know why the meth-associated memories are so powerful or why they are so easily erased while other memories persist. More work will need to be done to provide answers, but the implications are obvious.
Although the memory-erasing study has only been performed on lab animals, the results are very promising for how the technique could work in people. If a meth addict could have his associations with the drug destroyed, he could go into recovery and have much better odds of succeeding with minimal relapse events.
The implications do not stop with drug addiction, though. People who suffer from the mental illness called post-traumatic stress disorder also struggle to live a normal life because of difficult memories. Certain objects, smells and sights can remind people with the disorder of a traumatic event, leading to a flashback. If those memories and associations could be erased, they may never have terrifying flashbacks again. The Scripps research is groundbreaking, and although in early stages, shows great promise for helping numerous people in the future.