Have Scientists Found a Cure for Relapse?

By Chrisanne Grise 06/24/13

Researchers find a way to turn off memories that trigger cravings in alcohol-addicted rats.

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Erasing memories prevents lab rats from
falling into old habits.
Photo via

Scientists may have uncovered a way to prevent alcohol relapse by deactivating a neural pathway linked to memories of drinking, that is responsible for cravings. Researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco were able to prevent alcohol-addicted rats from seeking and drinking alcohol, by "turning off" triggers in the animals' brains. “One of the main causes of relapse is craving, triggered by the memory by certain cues—like going into a bar, or the smell or taste of alcohol,” says lead author Segev Barak. “We learned that when rats were exposed to the smell or taste of alcohol, there was a small window of opportunity to target the area of the brain that reconsolidates the memory of the craving for alcohol and to weaken or even erase the memory, and thus the craving.” Researchers put the alcohol-addicted rats through a 10-day abstinence period, before exposing them to the smell and taste of alcohol. When they administered the drug rapamycin on the brain pathway known as mTORC1 immediately after the smell or taste cue, the rat did not return to alcohol. Relapse remains a major obstacle in substance abuse treatment, say researchers, and a reported 70 to 80% of patients relapse in the first several years after rehab or treatment.The authors say more research is needed, but the study shows promise for preventing relapse in human addicts. "It is really thrilling that we were able to completely erase the memory of alcohol and prevent relapse in these animals," says Barak, "This could be a revolution in treatment approaches for addiction, in terms of erasing unwanted memories and thereby manipulating the brain triggers that are so problematic for people with addictions.”

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices, AbsolutePunk.net, Chorus.fm, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.