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Rewriting Memories May Help Addicts

A new technique could reduce drug, alcohol and nicotine cravings.

It’s not quite Eternal Sunshine of the Addicted Mind, but a new technique for altering memories could help people with addictions avoid relapse by reducing their cravings—without using pharmaceutical drugs. Addicts form strong connections between cues in the environment and the addictive substance, whether drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. When the link is particularly strong, they are more likely to relapse when they encounter those cues, such as friends smoking at a party, a bottle of liquor, or needles. A new technique, described in the journal Science, helped heroin addicts avoid relapse by breaking the links between the cues and the drug. Researchers first reactivated relevant memories by showing the addicts videos of drug-related images. Ten minutes later, they showed them more pictures and videos of drug use, with the intention of "rewriting" the memories. Addicts who had this treatment showed reduced cravings up to 180 days later. The method is similar to current ways used to help people break free of addictions. Reactivating the memory first, however, appears to make the memory more flexible, and easily overwritten. While this study looked specifically at heroin addicts, the researchers would also like to test whether it works for other types of addictions—such as alcohol or nicotine—or maybe even post-traumatic stress disorder. Who knows, it may even free you from the pain of past relationships. If successful, it might even be worth sitting through two hours of videos of your ex.

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