GOOD

This Memory-Erasing Drug Could Change the Way We Treat Addiction

Blebbistatin points to new therapeutic options and a few pressing ethical questions.

Image by Nevit via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, scientists at Florida’s Scripps Research Institute announced that they’d developed a treatment capable of selectively erasing the memory of a methamphetamine high in mice. Known as Blebbistatin, the chemical cocktail targets a specific protein used in encoding memories that acts in a strange way while one is on meth. With one dose, Blebbistatin apparently zaps the protein’s aberrant form, exclusively wiping out about 30 days of memories formed while an individual was on meth. The researchers hope that this ability to make targeted erasures of the memories addicts form, which often draw them out of rehab and back to their drug of choice, will help those recovering from meth avoid common relapses, making treatment faster and more effective.


At first blush, this proclamation sounds like a sci-fi revolution—like we’re about to enter the Eternal Sunshine era and should prepare to face the bundle of ethical questions that lie beyond. But in truth, the Blebbistatin breakthrough, while groundbreaking, isn’t as extraordinary as you might think. Scientists have been able to selectively alter and erase memories for decades now. And for at least a decade, researchers have been brewing up functional and targeted memory-based treatments for things like drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, some of which are already available for public use if you know where to look. Blebbistatin is in some ways just the latest in this long chain of developments. But it is a development that marks a new plateau in selective memory erasure, making a strong case for using memory-based solutions as at least one component of addiction treatment in the very near future.

Humans have been messing around with memory alteration ever since we started to figure out how memories were physically created in our brains in the mid-20th century. Although memories are stored across a vast swath of neural areas, only a few chemicals, we learned, are involved in creating the bonds between those areas that facilitate joint activation and the recall of specific events or ideas. Every time a memory is created there is an opportunity to mess with it, as there is every time it is recalled—a chemical and structural explanation for the malleability of our recollections. Blocking these chemicals, knocking them out, or even providing different stimuli during memory recall could alter or completely wipe out memories over time. But for quite a while, the ways by which we did this in animal subjects were crude, invasive, and broad.

Yet just within the past few years there’s been a flurry of new research, mainly focused on drugs that sophisticate and refine the scope of memory erasure technology. In 2011, Israeli researchers figured out how to use a drug to, over the course of two weeks, erode the connection between an event and the memory of a drug fix in mice, although they were unclear what the scope of the effect was beyond drug-based memories. In 2013 and 2014, some researchers started shining laser lights on mice’s neural cells to track memory creation, allowing the scientists to trigger certain emotions from one memory alongside another, potentially overwriting the pain or pleasure of one memory with the opposite. They could create fake memories of, say, pain associated with a once-safe space by firing that place and emotional memory at once. But this approach just rewrote rather than erased memories, and was far too invasive for use in humans. Earlier this year, researchers in Texas also discovered that an in-use high blood pressure medication was able to block a channel used in memory and learning to reverse addiction-fueling memories of reward tied to drugs. But again, this was just altering, not erasing a memory.

While most of these developments are still in animal trials, a few are used regularly in humans. Propofol, or “milk of amnesia,” has been around forever as a means of altogether knocking out the last few minutes of a patient’s memory, but that does little good for eliminating specific memories. More promisingly, researchers have shown that inhaling the relatively harmless gas xenon, a common anesthetic agent, while recalling a traumatic or addiction memory, can break the connection between this memory and linked feelings or associations. At least one Serbian doctor is already offering this memory alteration treatment as a detox cure for humans. And numerous other studies have been conducted on the power of basic narcotics like MDMA or beta-blockers (like propranolol) to block neurotransmitters during memory recall, allowing therapists to help patients rewrite these memories’ associations and lessen the impact of addiction, PTSD, or any other number of memory-based disorders that give humans endless pain.

Authors of the new study included (left to right) Scripps Florida’s Sherri Briggs, Ashley Blouin, Courtney Miller and Erica Young. Image courtesy of Scripps.

But Blebbistatin, the memory drug currently making headlines, one-ups most of these existing theoretical or practical treatments, in that it allows one to knock out an entire drug memory, not just reprogram it. This is a bit of a breakthrough, because previous efforts by the same Scripps team to selectively target and destroy memory-association proteins had a nasty habit of messing with the ability of muscles (including the heart) to properly function. Blebbistatin manages to target meth-related memories without that side effect. And it can do so without one having to directly recall the memory and associated cravings. Using the drug also doesn’t require an invasive procedure—it can be injected into a peripheral body part and still take its full effective course, making it exceptionally versatile, low-impact, and powerful among memory treatments.

That said, the Blebbistatin discovery is not a sign that memory-based cures will be at your pharmacy tomorrow, nor that they are the silver bullet for meth addiction or any other ailment. For one thing, the drug still needs to go into human trials, which researchers suspect could take at least five years. And once there, there’s always only a slim chance that what works for mice will work the same way and just as effectively in our bodies. Plus, we still need to figure out what other drugs or conditions this might interact with and whether it or a related chemical can target memories other than those created on meth (or if meth memories turn out to be a chemically peculiar phenomenon with a powerful but non-transferrable memory treatment).

Even if Blebbistatin proves to be a functional and safe method for eliminating meth or other drug- or trauma-linked memories, it can only work so far back in time, making it impractical for long-term addicts seeking help. Plus psychologists point out that memory and addiction are complex and diffuse, meaning that many other factors could still drive an addict back to abuse aside from direct memories. (An Eternal Sunshine analogy is actually apt here: like how the protagonists are still somehow drawn to each other even after losing their memories of each other.) And none of this gets into the infinite ethical concerns we’d need to address regarding the selective power to destroy memories, which might allow someone to delete memories in another person, or even commit a crime on meth and then erase his or her own memory after the fact.

The Scripps researchers behind Blebbistatin seem to understand all these complicating issues very well and have been measured in predicting the benefits of their discovery. If it ever does become available for human use, they stress, it ought to be just one component in a larger addiction treatment, used mainly as an aid in preventing relapses that could torpedo larger psychological progress. And that’s not nothing—93 percent of meth addicts relapse, which is a big factor in determining why only 16 to 20 percent of these addicts manage to make a full recovery.

Yet even with all of these caveats, and even if Blebbistatin never makes it through human trials, the drug is still a fascinating find and a new plateau in memory-alteration research. It’s a sign that we’re getting better, not just at altering, but at effectively targeting and fully eliminating specific memories. And it’s a sign that there are great theoretical therapeutic benefits within this advance, even if they come to us years down the line. There are a good number of ethical issues to work out, but the benefits such treatments promise for addicts and trauma-sufferers mean that going through those debates and continuing this line of research is well worth the challenges.

Articles
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
test
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics