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Visiting expert to help drug addicts

Visiting expert to help drug addicts and people with research psychiatric disorders

July 9, 2013

A UK expert visiting the University of Canterbury (UC) is researching psychiatric disorders and drug addiction so she can develop treatments that erase maladaptive memories.

Dr Amy Milton from the University of Cambridge is examining memory reconsolidation, which underlies memory persistence and the updating of memories at retrieval.

The Cambridge scientist has found that by disrupting or erasing memories associated with drug use during recall she could prevent the memories from triggering relapses and further drug-taking.

``Being able to erase memories may be useful in treating psychiatric disorders. Many disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug addiction, persist in part because of strong emotional memories which are ultimately maladaptive.

``These memories link information about environmental cues - people, places, specific objects - and an emotional state such as fear for PTSD and craving for addiction. These memories underlie the persistent fear and anxiety seen in PTSD, and increase the risk of relapse in a previously drug-addicted person who is trying to remain abstinent.

``So far, my work has demonstrated that preventing specific types of chemical signalling in the brain, using drugs that block the receptors of these signals while the memory is in the active state, prevents the memory from reconsolidating and so disrupts the memory.

``This means that a single behavioural and pharmacological treatment has a long-term effect on behaviour. In our research we have seen a reduced risk of relapse that persists for at least a month after the treatment.

``We think that this novel way of treating addiction and PTSD could be very useful therapeutically, especially when used alongside other forms of therapy. We are now in the process of moving to the next step with small-scale experimental medical trials.’’

Dr Milton says, traditionally, memory was viewed as similar to a book, which could be shelved but never changed once printed. She believes memory is more like a word processing document which could be saved and then recalled.

``Our results suggest that efforts should be made to develop drugs that could be given in a controlled clinical or treatment environment in which addicts would have their most potent drug memories reactivated.

``Such treatments would be expected to diminish the effects of those memories in the future and help individuals resist relapse and maintain their abstinence.

``This is an exciting new approach to the treatment of drug addiction that has great potential.’’

Dr Milton is an Erskine visitor to UC. The Erskine fellowship programme was established in 1963 following a generous bequest by former distinguished UC student John Erskine. She will be researching with Dr Juan Canales at UC’s Psychology Department.


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