For alcoholics and other addicts who’ve gotten clean, avoiding a relapse is a difficult task. According to Dr. Segev Barak of Tel Aviv University‘s Sagol School of Neuroscience, 70-80% of alcohol and drug addicts return to their substance of choice, even a year after a successful detox. And memory, he says, has a lot to do with it.
“One of the main causes of relapse in alcoholics is memories that link objects and places connected to alcohol consumption, such as shops, liquor bottles, and of course the smell and taste of alcohol,” Dr. Barak says. Now he and his fellow researchers from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) have discovered that by “disengaging” memories associated with alcohol, it is possible to significantly cut the recidivism rate for alcoholics. In a UCSF lab, researchers were able to identify and deactivate a brain pathway in rats linked to cravings from alcohol, ultimately preventing the animals from seeking alcohol and drinking it.
In the study, researchers offered the rats a choice between water and 40 proof (20 percent) alcohol, which the rats drank in large quantities for two months. At the same time, the researchers trained the rats to press a lever to obtain alcohol. The rats were then put through a 10-day detoxification regimen, tempting them with the smell and taste of alcohol in their food.
Scanning the brains of the rodents, they discovered that memories of alcohol consumption, often prompted by external stimuli, caused activation of mTORC1 — a protein which plays an important role in memory — in specific areas of the brain responsible for memory processing, emotional memories, and emotional symptoms related to withdrawal. The activation of this protein made relapse for the rats far more likely.
However, in rats that were given a drug called rapamycin, administered immediately after exposure to the memory cue, the pathway was deactivated and there was no relapse. The rats’ drinking was suppressed until the end of the study.
Dr. Barak is now working on a behavioral treatment to find the best ways to implement memory disruption and end alcohol and drug recidivism, without the need for pharmaceutical intervention. “If we can develop an efficient treatment without the use of drugs, it would be a real revolution,” he said.
For the full story on Dr. Barak’s study, see the Times of Israel story:
For more neuroscience news from Tel Aviv University, click here.