New research in rats suggests that it might be possible to dull the vivid memories of cocaine, a finding that could lead to potential therapies that might one day make drugs less addictive.
In the new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Washington State University experimented with rats and showed that it's possible to interfere with the brain's memory creation process, which is involved in cocaine addiction. Altering this process could make the drug less desirable.
The researchers gave a group of rats cocaine while they were in a specific cage. The rats learned to associate their home with cocaine and memories of those experiences—something humans do, too, says study author Barbara Sorg, a professor of neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver.
"When people take drugs, they end up accumulating memories of where they took the drug, the people they took the drug with, the sights, the smells, the feeling of increased heart rate or the rush," says Sorg. "All those things are creating memories."
Sorg says that people who become dependent on drugs often want to relive a memory they have of that drug. "People talk about chasing that original high, that euphoric response that they can’t seem to get back, so they take higher and higher levels of drugs."
During the study the researchers also removed a part of the brain in some of the rats called the perineuronal nets. These nets are located in the brain region associated with attention, learning and memory. The researchers found that without their perineuronal nets the rats found the drug cages less desirable, suggesting the nets are both involved in drug-related memories, and that removing them can blunt those memories.
"We are trying to get to a basic understanding for what structures might be responsible for expressing cocaine-associated memory," says Sorg. If those memories can indeed be dulled, then there may be an pathway for therapies to curb cocaine's addictiveness in the brain. A drug that targets one of the building blocks of the nets could be a possible option one day, Sorg says, though this research is still very preliminary.
These findings, if replicated in humans, could have implications for people trying to recover from addiction, Sorg says. Sometimes people who succeed in rehab relapse once they are put back in the environment where they were using drugs, Sorg says, possibly due to all the cues around them that they associate with the experience.
"If we can understand the components of these nets and how they are regulated by cocaine, or how they’ve changed by taking cocaine, then we can understand the next step which would be developing therapeutics," Sorg says.
What America's War on Drugs Looked Like in 1969
Co Rentmeester—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images