Memory’s Role in Drug Use Examined
> 8/19/2008 4:12:21 PM

For those striving to overcome substance abuse and addiction, avoiding relapse can be a struggle, but recent research may point toward more effective ways to help addicts achieve a successful recovery. In a study published in the current issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Cambridge demonstrate how the disruption of memories associated with drug use might be useful in preventing relapse.

The study involved rats that had been trained to perform specific tasks. When they had completed a behavior, the rats received cocaine. A light would be switched on at the same time, so the rats soon learned to associate the light with the effects of drug use. During a process the researchers called “memory reactivation sessions” the light would be switched on, fueling the rats’ memories of cocaine, and the rats would again engage in tasks that would allow them to receive more of the drug.

In an effort to block drug-associated memories and prevent drug-seeking behavior, the researchers gave the rats a chemical that interferes with glutamate receptors, which are important components of memory and learning. When the researchers administered this chemical just before the reactivation sessions, the rats were less likely to seek out cocaine during the subsequent few weeks. However, this chemical had no effect on the rats’ drug-related behavior when it was administered after the reactivation session or in absence of the reactivation session. This may indicate that the disruption of memories associated with drug use is only helpful at certain times and is most effective when the memories are being actively recalled.

The presence of a stimulus that has been paired with drug use can influence an individual’s behavior, triggering drug-seeking behavior. Continued study should shed more light on how context and memory can affect and reinforce addiction, and further work may allow for the development of more effective forms of treatment to help those struggling to recover. As researchers investigate this topic further, they may more clearly uncover the mechanisms that sustain addiction and contribute to relapse.

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