Watching a five-minute video can help whitewash memories of past drug use in former heroin addicts and ease their cravings, a new study shows. By weakening mental ties between drug-related paraphernalia and the desire to use, the method may be a powerful and long-lasting way to help people struggling with addiction stay clean.
“The process is really simple,” says study coauthor David Epstein of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore, Md. “But it’s based on some really important ideas.”
The method, described in the April 13 Science, seems to work by dampening the association between using a drug and cues that remind someone of using. Walking by a familiar corner where a dealer works or bumping into an old friend from drug-using days, for example, can be particularly hard for people battling addiction.
Led by neuroscientist Lin Lu of Peking University in China, researchers first tested the idea in animals, easing drug-seeking behaviors in rats by calling up and then dampening drug-related memories. Next, the team turned to people who were battling heroin addiction in China.
Sixty-six people underwent a two-step process: First, volunteers watched a video of either a natural scene or of people smoking and injecting heroin. The heroin movie served as a quick reminder, calling up former memories of drug use. Each time these kinds of memories are called to mind, the former drug users become fragile, vulnerable to being rewritten or modified, Epstein says. “It’s not like a tape recorder playing something back,” he says. “It’s more like a computer pulling up a document, potentially editing the document, and then resaving the document.” This process is called reconsolidation.
After this reminder, participants spent about an hour watching more drug-related movies and slide shows, and even handling fake heroin, a trial called an “extinction session.” The researchers varied the time between the reminder and the extinction sessions: Some people waited just 10 minutes, and others waited six hours. This process was repeated on two consecutive days.
In later tests, people whose memories were primed with the drug reminder 10 minutes before the extinction reported less craving for heroin after seeing drug cues one, 30, and 180 days after the technique. Bodily responses to drug cues were blunted, too: People who had been primed in the 10-minute window showed less of a blood pressure rise in response to seeing drug paraphernalia compared with people who hadn’t received the reminder.
“What was just so striking about the human data was how persistent the effects were,” says neuroscientist Jane Taylor of the Yale School of Medicine.
Timing is everything, Lu’s team found. People who waited six hours before undergoing the extinction didn’t get the same effect. The results suggest that there’s something important happening in the window right after the reminder.
“I think it’s a very interesting, very intriguing set of data,” says psychologist Stephen Tiffany of the University at Buffalo. It remains to be seen whether the effects persist in people’s real lives, outside of the lab, he says, and what relationship may exist between drug craving and drug relapse.