The Eternal Freedom of the Blacked Out Mind

The Eternal Freedom of the Blacked Out Mind

By Regina Walker 08/17/15

If the memory of drug use could be erased, there would be no euphoric recall, no urge to relapse . . .

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
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In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the lead female character, Clementine, is unable to get over her previous romantic relationship. The relationship is filled with good and bad memories, and it plagues her so much that she agrees to undergo a procedure to erase the entire relationship from her memory. Despite all the emotional depth of the relationship, she feels it is worth it to let go of the positive memories to free herself from the bad. Once her ex-boyfriend, Joel, realizes what she has done, he has the same procedure performed on himself. Joel, though, once he’s made the decision to undergo the procedure, still fights the effects of the erasing process, attempting unsuccessfully to hold on to Clementine, and the happy memories they shared.

Many consider addiction a relationship with a substance—a relationship that starts off promisingly, that feels right in the moment (or why else would one continue it?) but eventually turns ugly and destructive. Yet, many people who acknowledge that substance abuse has caused significant problems in their lives, nonetheless have enormous difficulty quitting. And of course, it’s not just the present effects of a substance to which one is addicted that make an addiction an addiction—it’s the memories.

Cravings and euphoric recall of positive memories associated with drug or alcohol use are widely said to make quitting particularly difficult—in fact, without those memories, addiction could hardly be said to exist at all. Remembering the good times had while getting high—and while getting high anew—can lead to intense cravings to use again, which often results in relapse back into substance abuse, despite the fact that reason says you’d be better off, far better off, if the relationship could end. Or if it had never happened in the first place.

But what if the memory of drug use could be erased? If one could lose all memory of drug use? Then there could be no euphoric recall, no cravings, no obsessing on positive memories of long-past pleasures that lead to present addiction. If that were possible could a former addict or alcoholic literally start fresh and stay clean and sober? What if one single injection could erase all memory of drug use while leaving all other memories intact?

Incredibly, this may very well be possible, as a group of scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have discovered.

"We now have a viable target and by blocking that target, we can disrupt, and potentially erase, drug memories, leaving other memories intact," said TSRI Associate Professor Courtney Miller. "The hope is that, when combined with traditional rehabilitation and abstinence therapies, we can reduce or eliminate relapse for meth users after a single treatment by taking away the power of an individual's triggers."

The team made the discovery that drug-associated memories could be selectively erased by targeting actin, the protein that provides the structural scaffold supporting memories in the brain. There is a significant problem in that actin is critically important throughout the body—taking a pill that generally inhibits actin, even once, would likely be fatal. (Actin is a protein found in many places—including in muscle tissue, where it is essential for muscles to be able to work, so blocking its ability to do what it does could literally be heart-stopping.)

Building on a study which began in 2013, Miller and her colleagues report a major advance—the discovery of a safe route to selectively targeting actin in the brain, through nonmuscle myosin II (NMII), a molecular motor that supports memory formation. To accomplish this, the researchers used a compound called blebbistatin that acts on this protein.

Blebbistatin is a small molecule inhibitor that shows high affinity and selectivity toward myosin II. That’s a lot of technical language, but here is what it means in simple terms: Long-term memories—the ones that stay with you—are formed as a result of actual physical changes in the shape of nerve cells, or neurons. To change the shape of these cells, proteins—the same ones that allow muscles to work, basically—work together to change the shape of those cells. The bulges that appear in nerve cells when new memories are being formed are sometimes called “blebs”—a very plain word that simply means a bulb or protrusion (something sticking out of something else). These changes in the shape of a nerve cell are how, as far as we know, long-term memories are written into the brain. Now, if you want to block those memories, you can block the chemicals—proteins, in this case—that make the memories, and the two chemicals that help make these physical changes in nerve cells are variations on exactly the same ones that allow muscles to work: actin and myosin.

Blebbistatin was found to be effective in blocking myosin II in the brains of mice and rats during the maintenance phase of methamphetamine-related memory formation. No other memories were affected and no known physical damage was noted. Now that is an amazing thing. This substance, blebbistatin, appears to be able to specifically block—in the studies in which it has been used—the formation of memories associated with the pleasurable use of methamphetamine. Here’s a summary from MedicalXpress.com, a well-respected web portal for medical news:

“In the tests, animals were trained to associate the rewarding effects of methamphetamine with a rich context of visual, tactile and scent cues. When injected with the inhibitor (blebbistatin) many days later in their home environment, they later showed a complete lack of interest when they encountered drug-associated cues. At the same time, the response to other memories, such as food rewards, was unaffected.”

So here is a key and vital question: How do we know that blebbistatin can block, or undo, only memories associated with methamphetamine use? The answer is, we don’t know for sure—at least not yet. TSRI’s Courtney Miller says, "We are focused on understanding what makes these memories different. The hope is that our strategies may be applicable to other harmful memories, such as those that perpetuate smoking or PTSD."

Though this is fascinating and promising research, it brings up some ethical dilemmas. Miller has also stated; "Our memories make us who we are, but some of these memories can make life very difficult. Not unlike in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we're looking for strategies to selectively eliminate evidence of past experiences related to drug abuse or a traumatic event. Our study shows we can do just that in mice—wipe out deeply engrained drug-related memories without harming other memories."

Spoiler alert! With both their memories erased, Joel and Clementine meet again at the end of the film. With no memory of each other, they are again drawn to one another. The inexplicable attraction could not be erased and the film ends with them, once again, in a relationship together. That’s a happy ending in a way. But if the inexplicable attraction is to a drug, not a person, maybe the ending is more problematic.

Though it is simply a movie, it does raise an interesting question. Whatever draws one to drugs or alcohol initially cannot be erased by a single injection. And for those who utilize the negative experiences of drug use (“consequential thinking”) to avoid relapse to active addiction, it’s possible that they will lose the very memories that help them remember to avoid making the same mistakes again. 

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the role of DBT in the treatment of addiction as well as the ACE test to predict future addiction.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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