A study published today in the journal Science describes how manipulating addicts’ memories of past drug use can reduce their cravings and prevent them from relapsing after they’ve kicked the habit.
The study says that preventing cravings is one of the biggest challenges in the treatment of heroin addiction.
The researchers, from National Institute of Drug Dependence at Peking University, say that it reduces the cravings for up to six months.
The new procedure combines cue exposure with manipulation of a process called 'memory reconsolidation,' which manipulates addicts’ memories of past drug use to weaken their habitual responses to paraphernalia and other drug-related stimuli.
They showed heroin addicts a 5-minute video of images of heroin use and drug paraphernalia, either 10 minutes or 6 hours before an hour-long extinction session, in which they were repeatedly exposed to the same images.
Addicts who were shown the video 10 minutes before the extinction session showed decreased drug cravings both during the session and up to six months later, says Lu. There was no noticeable effect on cravings in those who watched the video 6 hours before the session.
Neuroscientists think that the brief exposure beforehand reactivates the memory of drug taking, making it easier to erase the link between the cues of drug taking and getting high, and to replace it with a memory in which no such link is formed.