PUBLISHED: 07:43 EST, 13 April 2012 | UPDATED: 07:51 EST, 13 April 2012
It’s possible to ‘rewrite’ the memories of reformed drug addicts and help prevent them from relapsing, according to a new study.
Researchers at Peking University said that some former addicts were at risk of going back to their old way of life when they saw objects associated with drug-taking – such as a needle or cigarette.
However, their study showed that it is possible to extinguish this link.
The authors published their results in the journal Science and wrote: ‘The [memory] procedure decreased cue-induced drug craving and perhaps could reduce the likelihood of cue-induced relapse during prolonged abstinence periods.’
Their discovery was that, counter-intuitively, the cravings could be reduced by reactivating memories of drug-taking for a short time.
This was achieved by showing former heroin addicts a video in which drug-taking was taking place.
The team found that at this point the memory of drug-taking becomes malleable for about 10 minutes.
To overwrite it, the volunteers were repeatedly shown more memory cues of drug-taking.
The fact that no substances were being used broke the link between the object and the craving.
However, it’s the timing of the initial video that’s crucial.
The team noticed that those who watched the video 10 minutes before the ‘memory extinction session’ experienced a noticeable drop in their cravings for up to six months afterwards.
Danger: Seeing images of drug paraphernalia can bring on cravings with some drug addicts
There was no noticeable reduction in cravings, though, for those who were shown the video six hours before the session.
Dr Amy Milton, who researches memory and addiction at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC: ‘I’m quite excited by this research. There is no theoretical reason it couldn’t apply to other addictions such as alcohol. That’s obviously very exciting.’