University of Guelph researchers uncover why environmental cues make drug addiction extra hard to beat

February 27, 2019

It's known environmental cues can be strong triggers for those trying to kick a drug habit because those cues activate the brain's emotional and stimulus-response systems.

A new study by University of Guelph researchers reveals for the first time that there's more going on in the brain when someone walks past a customary lighting-up spot or sees drug-taking paraphernalia that makes quitting the habit even harder.

Besides triggering the brain's emotional and stimulus-response systems ("see smoking area, smoke, feel good"), environmental cues activate brain areas where memories are processed.

Prompting these memory processing systems of the brain makes it extra difficult to counter addiction, said psychology professor and study co-author Francesco Leri.

Published recently in the journal Learning and Memory, the study in laboratory rats could also have implications for how we treat drug addiction in humans.

Cocaine and nicotine alone were already known to promote long-term memory storage. This study shows that environmental cues associated with the effects of these drugs also affect the formation of memories in the brain.

"Stimuli in our environment such as buildings, objects and places are normally fairly innocuous," said Leri. Contrasting those triggers with the "viciousness of addiction," he added: "When they're associated with drugs of abuse, they can become modifiers of memory function."

That creates a double whammy effect where classic stimulus-response mechanisms are reinforced by the memory effects of environmental drug cues, said co-author Boyer Winters, also a psychology professor.

Added to the conditioned response, Winters said, "that learning's going to be stamped in better and probably be stronger and more persistent."

The research team - including students Michael Wolter, Ethan Huff and Talia Spiegel - compared rats' memory of objects in test chambers after being given cocaine and nicotine with how well they performed when prompted only by the environmental stimuli associated with the substance effects.

The researchers tested rats either with or without the drugs, and then tested them all drug-free. Animals in a drug-free state showed more activity in chambers where they had earlier been tested while drugged than in test environments without drugs.

That suggests environmental cues paired with cocaine and nicotine - like the drugs themselves - can help strengthen memories in the brain, said Leri. That one-two effect makes it harder to treat drug abuse, but the same finding may offer a way to use these cues to improve cognitive behavioural therapy.

"Those cues acquire powerful cognitive effects," he said, adding that "they could be used to enhance learning of the recovery process."

Prof. Francesco Leri

Prof. Boyer Winters

University of Guelph

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to