Addiction affects the entire body, but it has particularly serious effects on the brain. It’s the brain that interprets physical reactions as pleasurable or not so pleasurable, including reactions associated with using alcohol, drugs or other substances. For this reason, researchers study ways the brain is affected by substance abuse and also look for new ways to alter the brain’s reaction to drugs in order to find new ways to treat people who suffer from substance abuse.
New research is looking at an area that may seem surprising. At Western University, researchers are looking at how managing memories could help people to recover from addiction.
The Power of Memory
Memory is a powerful force in the brain. Memories are closely connected to emotions, both positive and negative, and therefore can become a strong influence on current behavior. In the case of addiction, the brain becomes rewired to remember the intense pleasure of taking a drug, causing a person to experience strong, irrational cravings for it, even if rationally they know it is harmful.
Studies have shown the connection between drug use and memory. In one such study, brain scans of people who were formerly addicted to cocaine showed high levels of activity in the amygdala when those people watched a video including cocaine and drug paraphernalia. The amygdala is a part of the brain’s limbic system that is critical for both memory and emotion, showing the close link between these two brain functions. When a person suffering from substance abuse experiences a craving for a drug, memory of the pleasurable experience and the emotions connected to it combine to override their logical thinking and make it very hard to resist taking the drug. To stop the substance abuse, the memory and connected emotions need to become less powerful, so the person is able to resist or disregard them.
New research from Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry has shown a potential way to control the spontaneous recall of memories, both negative and positive, without removing or altering the memories themselves. By stimulating a type of dopamine receptor in one specific area of the brain, the researchers were able to prevent the immediate recall of both traumatic and pleasurable memories. This has implications for multiple areas of therapeutic treatment. For example, controlling the recall of pleasurable memories may assist people who are recovering from drug addiction, while controlling negative and traumatic memories can help individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Suppressing the immediate recall of memories may help people dealing with either substance abuse or PTSD – or both, in dual diagnosis cases – by reducing the emotional power of their memories.
As shown in the brain scan study, encountering something that reminds a former addict of their drug use can trigger new cravings, based on their brain activity. Just seeing something associated with drug use on a video is potentially enough to trigger pleasurable memories of using the drug. If those memories are not recalled as immediately, former addicts may experience fewer moments of strong emotional recall, thereby reducing the temptation for them to relapse and strengthening their ability to reject future drug use.
More research needs to be done in order to understand the mechanism that controls memory, which to date is not well understood. There is currently a lack of effective treatments for coping with intrusive memories in either PTSD patients or people suffering from substance abuse. But this new discovery suggests that by learning how to suppress instant recall of memories, new prescription drug therapies could be developed to help people recovering from substance abuse to recover more quickly and to avoid relapse in the future.