The Science of Erasing Meth Memories

By Ellie Robins 09/21/15

What if there was a drug that would remove the emotional attachment to certain memories?

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New research coming out of Florida’s Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has brought us a giant leap closer to the ability to erase memories—but it only applies to memories associated with using meth.

That restriction isn’t down to favoritism. It turns out meth memories are stored in a different way than other memories—a way that makes it possible to disrupt them long after the original event has taken place. Neuroscientists have known for years that the protein actin is used in storing memories. In 2014, a team at TSRI discovered a funny thing: when most memories are stored, the actin stabilizes within minutes and is then invulnerable to disruption, but when the brain stores memories of taking meth, the actin doesn’t stabilize; it remains in a dynamic, vulnerable state. So the next step is simple, right? Target actin: you keep all the memories of vacations and exes and peeing your pants in first grade and lose only the meth-related ones. The problem is that actin is also used in a whole bunch of other essential bodily processes, and disrupting its work can be fatal.

So the team has been looking for ways to safely disrupt the actin in meth memories alone, and at the beginning of this month they published research showing that they’d figured it out—at least as far as mice and rats are concerned. After a dose of a molecular inhibitor called Blebbistatin, test animals that had become addicted to meth were apparently invulnerable to triggers related to their former drug use. Perhaps even more remarkably, when they tested a month later, the animals still did not respond to triggers, suggesting that the memories hadn’t spontaneously been recovered: they seemed to be gone for good.

Dr. Courtney Miller from the team at TSRI told me that with enough funding, and so long as they don’t encounter any insurmountable hurdles, they might be ready to begin phase one clinical trials—that is, testing this research on humans—in six years’ time. And the team is currently working to see whether they can target memories associated with other drugs, too.

Dr. Miller is keen to point out that this therapy would only be intended as a complement to existing methods of rehabilitation: “For methamphetamine, for instance,” she said, “we would envision someone going to an inpatient program, just like they would now, going through abstinence therapy and behavioral modification, CBT, and so on, but while they’re in the inpatient program they would also receive this drug, hopefully just once, and that should help to target the associations that can serve as triggers for craving and relapse. The idea would be that later on, once they’ve completed the treatment program and they’re back in their lives, these triggers wouldn’t hold the same control for them.”

There’s something about the idea of deleting memories that inspires an instinctive aversion in a lot of us, and the inevitable comparisons to Charlie Kaufman’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, might have something to do with it: now, we all have a cute cultural shorthand for the romantic vs. the clinical approaches to memory. Who wants to delete snowball fights on the beach and lying on a frozen lake at night with their lover? Only a heartless monster or a misguided fool. But even if we hadn’t seen Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet go down this road before, research that pushes science way into the realm of metaphysics in this way forces us to ask some difficult questions. Like: What do we lose when we lose a memory? And aren’t memories essential components of identity? These questions are all the more pertinent when it comes to addiction recovery, because memories of rock bottom often help to keep people in recovery sober, and because learning to live with memories of intoxication, even the “good” ones, is—right now, at least—an essential step in the process of achieving stable sobriety.

I asked Dr. Miller if she could offer a scientist’s answer to the question of what we lose when we lose a memory—or rather, what those rats and mice lost when they lost these meth-associated memories. Sadly, the empirical answer to this riddle will only emerge if and when the drug is tested on humans, but Dr. Miller has a suspicion about how the treatment might feel: “We’re targeting these memories specifically in the amygdala—that’s the emotional memory center of the brain. [...] That makes me think that what’s happening is the portion of the memory trace that has that emotional, motivational component is being removed. So someone may remember the block [where] they would go to buy, for instance, but encountering that wouldn’t trigger a craving.”

So it seems likely, though it can’t yet be proven, that recipients of the drug would escape narrative lapses in their lives, and would simply experience no emotional attachment to certain memories. That could be an extremely valuable development, particularly for those who struggle with repeated relapse: research shows that exposure to a trigger for even a matter of milliseconds can be enough to drive a person in recovery to craving and seeking their drug of choice. At the moment, the best tools we have to fight that dynamic involve relearning responses to triggers using cognitive behavioral techniques: a valuable, logical process that nevertheless often leaves vulnerabilities, especially since triggers sometimes work on a subconscious level.

If this research could help those in recovery by stripping drug-taking memories of their motivational power automatically and universally, it could be the vital last tool in the sober toolbox for many people. And Courtney Miller is on the same page about what this drug should and should not offer: “A treatment that would just wipe out memories is not an option,” she said, “because, for one thing, you need to be able to remember those experiences so that you don’t land right back where you started. [...] It appears, at least with the experiments that we’ve done, that we’re coming in with a really fine scalpel and just dissecting out those little pieces that are controlling motivation.”

True, images of scalpels might not help to dispel that instinctive aversion. But thinking about this as a treatment for motivation rather than for memory might help us to wrangle it back from the realms of romance. Are identity and the fruits of experience still at stake if—as Dr. Miller suspects—we’re just talking about changing the quality of our subconscious reactions to certain memories?

If all goes according to plan, we have about six years to figure out our positions, before this drug is brought to the first humans. And as researchers make vast inroads into medicine’s “final frontier”—the brain—this likely won’t be the only metaphysical quandary to become a pressing, real-life question in the near future. Drug-addiction research has already made phenomenal advances in the last couple of decades, though thus far the medical applications of those findings have been limited, and the standard treatment models—including the 12 steps, residential rehab, talk therapy and CBT—have remained relatively untouched. As researchers come to understand and find ways to manipulate memory and motivation on a molecular level, that might be set to change.

Ellie Robins is a writer and translator based in Los Angeles.
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