Wiping memories to tackle alcoholism

March 13, 2012, University of Cambridge
Wine drop. Credit: Fabrizio Monti from Flickr

(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers at the University of Cambridge believe connections developed in the brain between the ‘drug high’ of alcohol and the situations in which it’s used create loaded memories that unconsciously trigger cravings – often leading to relapse in alcoholics.

New research using rodent models reveals that treatment administered when a memory is forcibly surfaced permanently deletes the unconscious ‘cues’ that spark yearning for alcohol. With experimental medical trials expected to start in the near future, the research could revolutionise approaches to the treatment of chronic alcoholism and addiction to other drugs of abuse.

Researchers at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, based in the Department of Experimental Psychology, are tackling the problem of pavlovian ‘cue-drug memory’ – when memories of the people, places and drug paraphernalia around drug use become inextricably bound in the to an unconscious impulse to use drugs. It’s a problem that affects thousands of people suffering from alcohol-dependency, and the research work is starting to show remarkable results.

Focusing on the amygdala, the part of the brain that stores this type of , the researchers believe that a memory can be reset, preventing drug cues from driving the embedded impulses to drink that cause devastation in the lives of alcoholics – by applying drug treatments at the moment of remembering.

“Traditionally, memory was viewed as similar to a book, which can be shelved but never changed once printed. We now think that memory is more like a word processing document – you can save it and then recall it, at which point you can adapt or even delete its contents,” says Dr. Amy Milton, who is leading the research.

“In the process of recalling, a memory moves from an inactive, stable state to an active, unstable state, at which point we think it can be manipulated so that the cue-drug memory never returns to the stable state. This means that the cue becomes meaningless, and can no longer initiate alcohol craving.”

So far, the researchers have been working with rat models, and have been able to markedly reduce the effects of memory cues in the drug-seeking behaviour of the animals, for both cue-cocaine and cue-alcohol memories. Experimental medical studies with volunteer alcoholics are expected to begin in the next 1 to 2 years, with early indications that the drug propranolol, a beta-blocker already approved for human use, has the potential to yield excellent results.

In the rodent study, alcohol provision is paired with presentation of a light cue, so that the animals become conditioned to associate the light with the drug high. The animals will then work to activate the light by pressing levers. Those treated with propranolol at the point of memory reactivation, a brief reminder session when the animals are exposed to the cue, but not the drug of abuse – simply stop working to activate the light.

“The animals don’t respond to the drug cue at all,” says Milton. “We track them for weeks following a single treatment and the cue-drug memory never returns. They stop working for the light because they no longer have any association with it – the stimulus becomes effectively meaningless.”

Propranolol targets a type of receptor in the brain called the beta-adrenergic receptor, which is activated in emotional situations, and helps to create a strong emotional memory. By applying the drug at the point when the memory is reactivated and in a malleable state, the processing that leads to the emotional memory is blocked – the memory is effectively reset to an unemotional state.

Crucially, the conscious memory itself does not disappear, only the emotional association formerly attached to it. “Our research, along with trials in the US on fear memories in post-traumatic stress disorder, suggest that addicts will still remember experiences – the places, people and the problems that were associated with the memories – which is vital from a therapeutic perspective,” says Milton.

“What this treatment will do is to remove the unconscious trigger to relapse that stems from the learnt emotional cue-drug memory – freeing the patient from the years of conditioning which has built up in their as a consequence of alcohol addiction.”

“Alcoholism, like other addictions, is not a case of self-control, but a disease of the brain for which there is currently no neurological cure. We hope our research and its potential application can contribute in some way to a better understanding of how alcoholism can be treated to greater effect.”

Explore further: Remembering to forget: Destroying bad memories and breaking bad habits

Related Stories

Remembering to forget: Destroying bad memories and breaking bad habits

October 19, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Retrieving a memory is crucial when trying to extinguish it completely, according to research published today by University of Birmingham scientists in the journal Nature Communications.

Research offers hope for treatment of cocaine addiction

July 15, 2011
New discoveries by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) offer potential for development of a first-ever pharmacological treatment for cocaine addiction.

Stopping smoking boosts everyday memory

September 25, 2011
Giving up smoking isn’t just good for your health, it’s also good for your memory, according to research from Northumbria University.

Neuroscientists find cellular mechanism that shapes your memories

September 12, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- VU University Amsterdam neuroscientists discovered what happens in your nerve cells upon memory recall, as appeared in this week's advance online publication of Nature Neuroscience. This is important for ...

Recommended for you

Greening vacant lots reduces feelings of depression in city dwellers, study finds

July 20, 2018
Greening vacant urban land significantly reduces feelings of depression and improves overall mental health for the surrounding residents, researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences ...

People love to hate on do-gooders, especially at work

July 20, 2018
Sometimes, it doesn't pay to be a do-gooder, according to a new University of Guelph study.

New study questions use of talking therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia

July 20, 2018
The findings of the first meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for psychosis (CBTp) on improving the quality of life and functioning and reducing distress of people diagnosed with schizophrenia ...

Perfectionism in young children may indicate OCD risk

July 19, 2018
Studying young children, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that kids who possess tendencies toward perfectionism and excessive self-control are twice as likely as other children to ...

Finding well-being through an aerial, as opposed to ground-level, view of time

July 19, 2018
Do today and yesterday and tomorrow loom large in your thinking, with the more distant past and future barely visible on the horizon? That's not unusual in today's time-pressed world—and it seems a recipe for angst.

Younger children tend to make more informed decisions

July 19, 2018
A new study from the University of Waterloo has found that in some ways, the older you get the worse your decision making becomes.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.