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Scientists discover a method to delete cocaine-associated memories

Research published on 22 January 2019 may signal a genuine breakthrough in addiction treatment, as scientists have discovered a way to delete cocaine-associated memories in lab rats. Neuroscientific optogenetics techniques were used to alter the neurons linked with drug impulses. These findings may be invaluable in developing new techniques or drugs that can stop addicts relapsing.

More about this addiction study

This US-based study was carried out by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Mary Torregrossa, an Associate Professor at the university, commented: “While we’ve always known that the brain forms these cue-assisted memories, the specific circuits have never been clearly identified. We’ve found a central piece in the cue-memory puzzle, and we also show that taking out that piece in a substance use scenario can help reverse relapse-like behaviors”.

The researchers identified that tweaking the neurons associated with cocaine caused a significant reduction in the rats’ future relapse behaviors, even when they were out of the controlled environment. The amygdala and the medial geniculate nucleus were discovered to be vital areas of the brain that could be manipulated in this way.

It’s believed that these results could feed into new and more effective treatment methods than those that are currently offered by techniques such as exposure therapy. Exposure therapy can work well within the safe confines of therapy, however, once patients are back in their normal environment, their addictive behaviors often kicks back in.

About the optogenetics techniques used in this study

Optogenetics techniques utilize precise light pulses to target cells in the brain that have been genetically modified. The use of optogenetics enabled the scientists in the study to alter the neurons in the brain that were linked to cocaine-cue memories. Once the neurons had been erased, rats were far less inclined to behave in a drug-seeking manner, even when moved to new environments.

Exposure therapy is commonly used within addiction treatment, to break associations between memory and specific cues. Although it tends to work well within controlled therapeutic environments, it can be much less effective when patients move back into the outside world.

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