A Memory-Erasing Chemical That Can Change Your Behavior

Click to viewMemory is one of the main reasons why drug addicts who have gone sober suddenly find themselves jumping off the wagon. Environmental cues like visiting a place where you were high can make you remember the drug and weaken your resistance to taking it again. But now researchers have discovered a way to selectively erase "drug-associated memories" and make it easier for you to just say no to the needle, pill, or pipe. It all has to do with interrupting the brain's process of "reconsolidation," or memory retrieval.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge cut down on the drug-seeking behavior of cocaine-addicted rats by giving them a chemical that blocked NMDA-type receptors in the brain. First, they gave the rats a bunch of coke while flashing a light. Later, when they flashed the same light, they inspired the rats to look really frantically for drugs and engage in behaviors that had gotten them coke before. And yet when the scientists administered a chemical that blocked the rats' NMDA receptors, the rats who saw the flashing light didn't start trying to get drugs.

NMDA receptors are associated with learning and memory. Researchers speculate that interfering with them affects with memory retrieval, blocking or changing the memories significantly. According to the Society for Neuroscience:

Several NMDA receptor inhibitors are already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including the cough suppressant dextramethorphan and the Alzheimer's disease drug memantine.

"This is an example of hypothesis-driven basic research that can be readily translated to the treatment of cocaine addiction in humans," said Yavin Shaham, PhD, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an expert uninvolved in the study.

So drug addicts may be given the real-life equivalent of the memory-erasing technique we saw in The Manchurian Candidate. What I want to know is what exactly it feels like to have your memories tampered with so much that you no longer recall wanting to do a drug you've been addicted to. Do you literally forget taking the drug? Or do you just forget that it felt good?

Halting retrieval of drug-associated memories may prevent addiction relapse [Journal of Neuroscience via Eurekalert]