New Drug to Erase Drug-Associated Memories

The new drug Blebbistatin may be the next breakthrough in treating methamphetamine addiction. Clinical tests on animals show that a single injection of the drug has promising results in erasing the brain's memories of drug use and response.

Why do we need Blebbistatin?

Treating the phenomenon known as "euphoric recall" in the mind of the addict is a problem grappled with by treatment professionals for decades. Once thought to be present only in the brains of cocaine addicts, this is the response (trigger) seen when the addicts think of using the drug or when a reminder of the drug is present to them. The overpowering memories triggered by these stimuli compel addicts to crave drugs again.

Some addicts can be triggered into relapse with the smell of something that reminds them of using. Much like the memory associations of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an addict's brain has made associations with smells like those from the sulphur on a match being lit, a part of the ritual of drug use that is quite small, but powerful in bringing up drug memories. Associated with the smell is the sensation (memory) of smoking the drug or heating it for injection.

Other associations are as simple as the sight of the drug, even a fleeting image on TV or in a movie; the sound of something related to the addict's drug use, and many others that are stored deep in their memories. These associations often "hijack" the brain, meaning that they override other memories to stay prominent in the addict's mind, long after they stop using the drug.

Associations with pleasurable sensations and experiences from their drug use make treating these addictions doubly difficult. The brain responses in addiction are permanent markers that can create relapse conditions for many years.

The only treatment thus far to address these specific areas is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and others similarly focused on changing the thinking patterns for the addict. The downside of this is the need for long-term treatment, which is seldom available to recovering addicts. Because the memories are persistent and deeply ingrained in the brain of the addict, most will not receive the intense treatment needed to permanently alter the mindset of drug use.

What does it do?

Blebbistatin is remarkable in its ability to target the actin in the brain, storing addiction memories and the dendrites that form these specific memories, without impacting actin in the rest of the body.

Earlier research showed that targeting actin, the protein in the brain that stores memory and its supportive structure, was crucial for destroying drug-related memories. Unfortunately, actin serves throughout the body, and nothing served to specifically target only those memories which were drug-related. In these current trials, Blebbistatin has shown itself to be effective in doing just that, without any side effects to other memory structure, after only a single injection.

Another challenge previously solved was that of having to inject the drug into the brain. Blebbistatin is being shown to be effective through an action of the nonmuscle myosin II, destroying memories related to drug use, along with the dendrite spines supporting that structure; even when injected into peripheral body parts, with test animals remaining free from other health risks. The animals show ability to create new memories, along with retaining memories stored prior to the treatments.

How will it affect treatment?

Along with other treatment protocols, the use of Blebbistatin may reduce craving and euphoric recall to ease the recovering addict more comfortably and effectively into long-term, relapse-free abstinence.

These memories have caused countless addicts to relapse, many of them years after beginning recovery. Erasing the pleasurable memories stored in the brain is a giant step toward effective treatment that may allow them to focus more on recovery than their cognitions about their substance abuse.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.

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