Deleting Addiction, 1 Memory at a Time

Deleting Addiction, 1 Memory at a Time

Why you should care

If we can delete drug memories, targeting other recollections could be next.  

Who among us hasn’t longed to erase a memory? Pants-wetting at the fifth-grade spelling bee, or, more gravely, the trauma of a battlefield injury or a carjacking? This urge was most famously captured in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — the 2004 movie whose love-torn protagonists have their memories erased so they can move on. Well, with their work on addiction and meth, researchers in Florida may be taking us a step closer to taking that possibility from movie screen to medical clinic.

We all have triggers, those things that spark in us a feeling or a memory or a desire, but for addicts they can be lethal. A place or a person, a song or a smell, can spark an intense craving to use. Courtney Miller and her colleagues at the Scripps Research Institute are trying to create a remedy that can remove the meth associations embedded in memories. “We want to give recovering addicts a fighting chance,” says Miller.

It wouldn’t work for brainwashing someone.

Courtney Miller, Scripps Research Institute

When the brain forms memories, a protein called actin is stimulated. Normally, once a recollection has been stored, the actin stabilizes, but with meth-induced memories, the molecule continues to cycle. Through their research, the scientists figured out how to target and inhibit the active actin, blocking speed-related memories but leaving others untouched.

In the study, mice were trained to associate a unique environment with using meth, prompting them to self-administer the drug more manically when hanging out in that locale, versus in their cage at home. But when injected with an inhibitor, they showed no more interest in getting high in the drug-house than their everyday digs. Meanwhile, response to other triggers, like food rewards, remained totally unaffected.

That last part is important, especially considering the ethical questions that can arise when you start talking about erasing memories. “The reason I’m able to sleep at night is I know it’s a really selective effect,” Miller says. “It wouldn’t work for brainwashing someone.”

In rehab, therapists teach patients to use coping tools like breathing and exercise — but using meditation to fight meth cravings is like David using his slingshot on Goliath. And Michael Denicole, medical director at the Meadows, a treatment center in Arizona, says it takes anywhere from six months to a year for brain chemistry to reregulate after someone gets clean — during which time, the ability to cope with triggers is severely compromised.

No drug, of course, is a silver bullet. Denicole is weary that some might abandon the emotional and spiritual work sobriety requires and rely solely on a pharmaceutical treatment. “A drug could be a piece of the pie,” he says, “but you’re going to have to do the work too.”

Miller says they’re anywhere from three to 10 years away from a product that’s market-ready. Right now, she’s looking into whether this approach works on all drug cues, or just meth, as well as finding a pharmaceutical that can be taken orally and doesn’t have to be injected directly into the brain. But perhaps the biggest obstacle? Finding companies that want to invest in helping meth addicts. After that, maybe they’ll figure out how to make you forget what you did to your father’s brand-new Saab in 1994. Or, better, make him forget.

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