Addiction a form of 'extreme memory' or 'pathological learning'?

By Lunar Loops · May 15, 2006 · ·
  1. Lunar Loops
    The following article appeared in today's Boston Globe:
    Addiction's grip now seen as 'extreme memory'

    By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff | May 15, 2006
    Explain this: An addict sweats through withdrawal. He commits to staying sober. With years of effort, he builds a life he loves. And then, one day, he passes his old shooting alley or gets pain pills from the dentist, and boom. Relapse. It all comes crashing down. By all accounts, something similar may have hit US Representative Patrick Kennedy earlier this month.
    Old theories of addiction seem to fall short here. If the essence of addiction is dependence on a drug and fear of withdrawal symptoms, then why should this happen to a man who long since went through withdrawal? Or if addiction is about pleasure, why should a man embark on a course that will surely bring nothing but pain?
    Last week, brain scientists gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology batted around a newer theory that could fit a few more pieces into the puzzle and is already spurring experiments on new potential treatments.
    The idea is that addiction may be a form of ''extreme memory" or ''pathological learning." And that addiction can be so potent and persistent because it takes over learning processes in the brain that are central to humans' very survival.
    The brain evolved to identify essentials such as food or water and to record exactly how they can be reached, said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neuroscientist who is provost of Harvard University. And when it finds -- or even only expects to find -- such essentials, the chemical messenger dopamine is released. Its job in the brain is to say: ''This is very important; let's remember exactly how we did this."
    Even though they provide no benefit to the body, drugs can usurp that system, he said, by releasing dopamine -- so much dopamine, in fact, that little else can compete, leading addicts' brains to ''overlearn" the false message that drugs are good.
    Those surges of dopamine, the theory goes, contribute to the laying down of long-term memories and associations that remodel the connections in the brain and can last forever.
    Last year Hyman published a review article called ''Addiction: A Disease of Learning and Memory" in the American Journal of Psychiatry and concluded that neuroscience was reaching ''a far more accurate and robust picture of addiction than we had a few short years ago."
    Scientists who spoke at the MIT forum, held at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, cautioned that addiction is hideously complex and the memory aspect is surely only a piece of it.
    But the ''extreme memory" idea has been gaining attention among researchers in the last several years, they said, raising hopes that they may be able to apply some of the recent scientific progress on understanding memory at a molecular level to the conundrum of addiction. Already, researchers working with animals are trying out drugs that affect memory to see whether they can help treat addiction, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse.
    The institute is funding several studies that treat ''addicted" rodents with drugs that allow the replacement of old memories with new and different ones. The idea, Volkow said, is to break the power of cues that can cause relapse.
    For example, she said, a rat can be conditioned to associate a certain place with cocaine. But if it is given a drug that ''breaks" old memories as they come up again, a new no-cocaine memory may replace the cocaine one, breaking the association in the animal's brain between the place and the drug.
    Researchers hope that such memory-altering medications might even ''erase the memory of the pleasure associated with the drug," she said.
    One medication that has shown promise in breaking associations, even in humans, is D-Cycloserine, which is commonly used at higher doses for tuberculosis. Experiments have shown that it might be an effective treatment for phobias. At this point, however, the studies are too new to tell whether memory drugs will work for addictions, Volkow said.
    Recent research on the genes associated with addiction also seems to support the theory that learning and memory play an important role, Volkow said.
    In animals, when researchers manipulate genes involved in long-term learning, they create changes in the animals' response to drugs of abuse, she said, ''suggesting to investigators that these genes may be important in regulating the vulnerability to addiction."
    Other animal studies have shown that addictive drugs have dramatic effects on learning circuits, researchers said.
    A key to understanding addiction is to understand why and where such changes occur in learning circuits, said Dr. Robert C. Malenka, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. ''And if we understand that, maybe we'll be able to develop therapies that could begin to reverse them."
    As this ''pathological learning" model gains force, it may help reduce some of the stigma of addiction, some at the Picower conference said. Addiction, according to this model, is nothing so simple as a weakness of will, they said.
    The new model also provides a possible biological underpinning for aspects of the disease that addicts and those who treat them have long observed, said Dr. Shelly F. Greenfield, associate clinical director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program at McLean Hospital.
    ''We often think of treatment as quitting and staying quit," she said. ''Most people, I think, would agree that the quitting part is easier than the staying quit."

    Share This Article


  1. IHrtHalucingens
    This is very interesting and seems to make a lot more sense than older models.

    "Recent research on the genes associated with addiction also seems to support the theory that learning and memory play an important role, Volkow said"

    This makes you wonder if people who learn and encode information faster and more accurately (which is often directly related to intelligence) are more susceptable to addiction. In this case it would support the idea that drugs can ruin ones life. If a drug addiction replaces the connections that could potentially be used for an intellectual purpose, how many einsteins are out there abusing their drug of addiction instead of coming up with the cure for cancer or something. Of course im being overly dramatic but its something to think about.
  2. Lunar Loops
    I thought it was an interesting for thought indeed (or food for no thought as the case may be).
  3. Ranke
    Swim has contemplated this many times. Some of the heaviest drugs users swim knows (psychologically dependent, physically dependent, neither, or both) are extremely intelligent. This may just be due to his annoyance at those who show willful ignorance and/or complete disdain for knowledge. Interestingly though both his parents were both former heavy drug users/abusers. Even if the idea that smart people are more likely to become dependent on drugs is complete bullshit, the same conclusion can be reached by extrapolating from the information already widely known from other studies.

    Obviously anxiety level is fairly strongly linked to drug use. Now, based on the first study demonstrating that frontal lobe development may increase anxiety levels intelligence can be tied into drug use and/or abuse easily. As swiIHRT said, it's sounds logical that those neural connection that are either being strengthened by repetition or lost due to lack of use, could form at that crucial age in such a way that the memory of pleasure is so strong person A may react different than person B, in a drastically different way. Swim doesn't subscribe to the "disease" model of addiction, but there are clearly those more likely to engage in destructive drug use.

    Hurrah! Didn't notice for a second that was my 200th post.

    In swims case the drug that he remembers with most fondness is DXM. This also happens to be the drug that he started using first and used for a long period of time, typically for the escape and perfection that 3P doses provided. Even now when he simply cannot consume it due to the horrible physical response, he feels a longing for it and the feeling it brought.
  4. Alfa
    I think it is the other way around. Thinking about drug use itself or related concepts releases a small amount of neurotransmitters, thus mimicking the effects of the drug experience. This is why users like to think about drug use often, as the memory itself is a psychoactive experience.
    Even more interesting; this also causes Drug dreams. Dreams in which the user takes drugs and experiences the effects of the drug. You can call this 'extreme memory' as well.

    AFAIK learning patterns are caused by repeated rapid firing sequences of neurones. Logically since drugs increase the presence of neurotransmitters, this mechanism is much more intense and 'learning' is highly increased with certain drugs. You can call this 'extreme memory' as well.

    So addiction is something an addict has learned by experiencing and will maintain by remembering the experience. *

    So a medicine that breaks associations will likely break addiction. It may be interesting to review Ibogaine in this respect.

    * I've put this in bold because it has many important implications for drug users. Especially those coping with addiction.
    But also for those who think that drug effects are something that have few effects beyond the duration of the drug. If my thesis is correct and learning is intensified during the use of certain drugs, then the actions of the drug user during the drug effects have a much deeper imprint on the character of the user itself; since events that would normally cause a low level of 'learning'/ rapid firing sequences will have an intense level of learning.

    Please share your thoughts about my thesis.
  5. Metomni

    One thing I would be curious to test is whether or not people who have more severe/intense dreams about drugs are having those because their brain releases a higher than average amount of NT's during the process of thinking about drug use. You could also then test to see if this increased release in NT's has to do with a vulnerability to the substances. For example, if there is a relationship, would those people with more NT's than normal react more strongly to the drugs they're consuming?

    This idea and relationship has many ramifications including discovering ways to improve trips and guidelines for more accurate dosing regimines in specific people instead of just going by the standard "Mild" or "Heavy" listed dose. This knowledge could help decrease the amount of bad experiences in people who are surprisingly sensitive and would possibly increase the good experiences for those who want to feel even more.

    SWIM also wholeheartedly agrees with your assessment of the prospects of Ibogaine and other substances with the potential for similar benefits.
  6. Alfa
    I added this to the above:
  7. wonky
    This is an old post, but SWIM is new here and she found it very interesting. SWIM must say that she has spent many years clean of everything(most of her adult life has been lived sober), then returns to opiates for a month or two. The longing and the memory will hit, and the physical feeling will be there to use as if she had never stopped, even though she has been enjoying life and immersing herself in many other activities for 3, 6, 8, years. Also, drug dreams for SWIM have always been that she realizes she is using again, and she feels dread or panic, they are never pleasant dreams. As for the intelligence factor, SWIM has spent 25 years in and out of AA/NA. During these years she has met people of all different levels of intelligence, and she is not referring to educational level. However, the above mentioned article does seem to make much sense. Hopefully, research is ongoing in the field of addiction.
To make a comment simply sign up and become a member!