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Curing Meth Addiction One Deleted Memory at a Time

By Basoodler, Oct 30, 2013 | | |
  1. Basoodler

    Missing memories are the stuff of concept-heavy movies and messy weekends. But what if you could wipe out selected events in your head without damaging the rest of your brain?

    It sounds like a plot point in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but a group of scientists at the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute is working on erasing certain memories as a way to combat addiction. Courtney Miller is leading the research and she has high hopes for the practice, as long as it’s used ethically. I reached out to her to learn more.

    VICE: Would you mind attempting to explain your work to me?

    Courtney Miller: My lab is working on the role memory plays in addiction, in particular with relapse. For substance abusers it’s really hard when they come out of rehab and they’re trying to stay clean, because while they were using they developed a lot of associations between their environments and drug use. That leads to cravings that are really hard to fight. My lab is focusing on trying to weaken or erase only those memories, so hopefully they’ll have a fighting chance to stay clean.

    So, if every time you took meth you watched The Simpsons, this drug will make it so TV wouldn’t remind you of meth anymore

    That’s the idea, exactly.

    How do you target specific memories without damaging others, or even the brain itself?

    We used a couple of animal models where we teach them to associate things within their environment to drug use. In our study with methamphetamine they learn that one environment enables meth and another doesn’t. But what we found is the brain stores these drug-associated memories differently. By using a drug that targets that, it got rid of that memory; but because other memories weren’t formed in the same way they stayed intact.

    The process of forming drug-associated memories seems to happen really fast, so we put a drug in that disrupts that. But the drug doesn’t work on a normal memory, because the cycle happens so slowly the memory can replenish itself before the drug can affect it.

    Would people lose all memory of taking meth—like that entire time in their life?

    We don’t know yet. We’re trying to work it out. To model that in animals is challenging. But the brain is really complex and good at associating a lot of things, so my hope is that while there may be strings of things connected [to drug use], it’s only the most direct memories that will be affected.

    How far away are human trials?

    Pretty far unfortunately. It’s just the nature of science. What we’re working on now is a safe way of targeting this process in the brain. Right now with rats, we put the drug directly into the brains, but with people we obviously can’t do that. They’d probably be taking it orally, or at best injected. We’re working on a way to do that safely, because there can be problems with things like muscle contractions and cell division.


    Yes, but that’s a matter of taking the target through safety studies. I guess on an ethical or moral level there are interesting challenges; that’s where we just need to do a lot more experiments to understand the bounds of this. Our paper has been written about on a number of sites, and it’s interesting to look at the comments because people either think this is the most amazing thing in the world or history is bound to repeat itself with evil scientists doing this work.

    That’s why I’m always careful to say our goal is only to target really, really problematic matters that support psychiatric disorders. But we also need to make sure that’s all that happens.

    Why is that?

    I’d venture to say there’s a dark side to everything if someone is motivated enough to find it. We’re still trying to figure out the boundaries of what we’ve got here, but we’re hopeful because it’s looking like only pathological memories can be disrupted in this way. Similar memories, like food for example, were untouched by our manipulation.

    Are you concerned that your work could contribute to memory treatments that are less therapeutic and potentially less ethi

    Honestly, I spend a whole lot more time losing sleep over the people that email me with stories of how their lives are being ruined by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.

    You mentioned PTSD; can you foresee other applications for your work outside of addictions?

    We’re working on the bounds of this right now, to figure out just how many and what types of memories are stored in this unique way. One thing we’re working on is whether it'll work with other drugs like heroin, oxycodone, or even nicotine and alcohol.

    The other question [has to do with] traumatic memories, things associated with PTSD: are they also stored differently? We have reasons to believe that they may be, there might be something about really strong memories that the brain stores them in a different way.

    Do you see memory erasure therapy as a last resort?

    Or is it more of a stepping-stone; so instead of have five years of therapy you could just do this? I think it would be a good adjunct to therapy. Right now people are addicted to psycho-stimulants, like methamphetamine or cocaine, and it’s a real problem where the only treatment that’s available is therapy. Unfortunately therapy’s not terribly effective. It works but the relapse rates are really high.

    So you’re talking about supplementing standard therapy.

    Yeah, and I think that’s what’s unique about these memories; if they’re drug memories or PTSD memories, they constantly pop into your head unprovoked versus typical association memories you purposely retrieve. When they’re out in the world, trying to mind their own business and stay clean, everything around them is fighting against that.

    It’s easy to get swept up in it;

    just reading forums and talking to friends leading to this interview there were a lot of sci-fi references. Has that attention been positive or damaging to the perception of your work?

    I don’t know that it goes either way. What it does is make sure that we always have that in mind, and it keeps the goal in focus—that it’s really about psychiatric disorders and it needs to be limited to that to be therapeutic. You don’t want to be forgetting memories of your grandmother at the same time that you’re just trying to get control of your life.

    I guess that depends on your grandma. Looking beyond people on the internet, has the general scientific community been receptive?

    Yeah I think so. I mean one of the things that makes my job interesting is that the topic is something people innately find interesting. I know I do. I mean how do our brains store memories? And how do we create these things? How do we maintain some memories for a lifetime? It’s pretty incredibly when you consider what’s going on in the brain. At the end of the day, memories are really made of proteins, and those degrade and have to get replaced. So what maintains this long-term thread is something fun for everyone to think about.

    Also as I’ve said in the past, memories really make us who we are; which is why we don’t want to go and wipe everything out—that’s obviously not a therapeutic option.



  1. Potter
    This some sort of free-booter Scientology thing?
  2. Basoodler
    Nah, the idea is to cause people to associate unrelated good or bad memories to current actions to change behavior..

    The best reference I could find to explain it .. is.. a transcript of the popular sitcom "Big Bang Theory" . This is an excerpt from the plot summary found here http://bigbangtheory.wikia.com/wiki/The_Launch_Acceleration.. which is from Chronology

    Season 5, Episode 23

    Airdate May 3, 2012

    ^ not quite peer reviewed.. err well my peers did review..err. viewed .. nm
  3. headfull0fstars
    Memories make us who we are. The scientist researching this 'treatment' said it herself.

    I have been addicted to heroin and crack for 6 years and I am in recovery now. My experience of my addiction and my continuing journey toward recovery has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I am a very different person from the girl who decided to try heroin for the first time. I learned so much over the course of my addiction and recovery- about myself, about other people, and about the world. One of the things that I learned is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is no 'get out of jail free card' when it comes to addiction. Plucking all of the memories of my addiction from my brain might- might being the key word- be a temporary fix but it would be treating a symptom instead of the cause- like putting a band-aid on a mortal wound- and it would come at a cost.

    Memories make us who we are. The hardships we encounter and the way we deal with them make us who we are. It is often the most difficult experiences in life that we learn the most from. Overcoming my addiction has been the hardest and most painful thing I have ever experienced but I would never choose to forget.

    The scientist claims that pathological memories are stored in a separate part of the brain and can be targeted and destroyed without harming other memories- specifically making a point that memories of food remain untouched. If pathological memories are really different then there would be a danger of erasing memories of things like food or sex. Many people have pathological thoughts surrounding food and sex. I happen to have a very unhealthy relationship with food and with sex, if I was to have my pathological drug memories deleted wouldn't there be a very good chance that I could lose memories of food and sex as well?

    "Would people lose all memory of taking meth- like that time entire time in their life?

    We don't know yet"

    That sounds absolutely horrifying.


    I have to disagree with you. I don't think that this idea has to do with association therapy or training the brain to associate things that they once associated with drugs to associate them with other things.

    I don't mean to offend at all, but I really hate 'The Big Bang Theory' and it seems to be everywhere- it's on tv all of the time- I don't even have cable and I still manage to encounter it fairly often. It drives me crazy, now it's invading DF. I don't think the situation in the episode has anything at all to do with the subject of the article. What it was describing was an attempt at manipulating someone into liking them- not exactly scientific as the show would have you believe- but either way it has nothing to do with targeting and erasing certain memories.
  4. DrAxar
    One of the issues people in recovery face is euphoric recall, changes in thinking cause the idea of using to seem more appealing when a craving takes over. A person may then recall the experience in a skewed way focusing on the positives and ignoring the parts that did not go to plan. In order for the user to use again the mind has to justify and rationalise using (possibly because the pressure / drive created by the urge become overwhelming) which can result in false believes forming about how this time would be ok and so on.

    I once watched a documentary where they gave people with PTSD who had experienced a really bad event a therapeutic drug (not MDMA) and they asked the participant to recall the entire event by writing it down.

    They way this drug was to remove the negative memory and its associated part was this.
    1-) Recalling the event caused the brain circuits holding the memory which have become rigid and lost plasticity to become flexible and susceptible to change.

    2-) The drug they gave stopped the memory circuits containing the memory which have now become fluid and plastic to change back into the rigid and permanent state.

    as a result of this information held in the specific memory circuit is gradually lost. (treatment needs to be repeated until sufficient volume of information is lost).

    The interesting thing is that other memories are not affected because the drug only affects the memories that have been opened up by the action of recalling so by focusing on recalling the negative memory only that memory's pathways are destroyed and not the rest of the brain's.

    I don't know iwhat happened with the research but it was a experimental drug.
  5. Basoodler

    No big deal, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

    I had no idea technology existed to erase memory selectively... tbh, if such a thing is possible I find it concerning .. for a number of reasons

    The federal government would snatch it up on a heartbeat.. and do their own sort of erasing memory to keep it nice and quiet. (I would guess)

    I would think the technology would be snatched up by any intelligence agency in the world before it could get a chance to help any addict... it would clear up a lot of security issues for people like the CIA and would also make the job a bit safer for agents..

    Huge value in forgetting secrets.. its not something I'd think would be public.. you want your enemy to remember their secrets

    Since Meth addiction is generally fueled by the hope of repeating the bliss of those first hits, I figured she was referring to changing the "memory" of those first hits from bliss to bad.. so when confronted with a chance to use, the person would not be filled with joy and anticipation.. which would likely. Reduce the chances of using
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