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Eternal sunshine of the drug-free mind

Scientists studying rats say they have been able to erase the memories that trigger drug cravings by injecting a protein called ZIP directly into the brain region that controls pleasure and reward.

The notion of erasing memories associated with painful or harmful pasts is not a new one. But it has remained just that: a notion.

Will erasing memories associated with pleasure and reward also erase addiction? OiD-W/Flickr

Now scientists in Israel say they have devised a method to erase memories that trigger cravings in rats addicted to cocaine--a method that works so well it actually results in rats ignoring the place where they had been scoring the drug.

"Memories can trigger a desire for the drug, including memories of the drug itself, the needle, or the environment in which the drug was consumed," says Hebrew University researcher Rami Yaka. "This research indicates the possibility of erasing these memories in a way that will allow addicts to cancel the associations they have in their minds regarding the drug."

The team worked with a small protein called ZIP, which has been found in other studies in recent years to erase memories and even, as a result, inhibit learning processes.

After giving the rats cocaine in a designated spot in their pens for a few weeks, the team injected ZIP into the nucleus accumbens, a brain region known to control pleasure, reward, fear, and more, and then returned the rats to their pens. The rats proceeded to ignore the location they had only recently sought out, suggesting they no longer remembered either the place, the effect of the drug, or perhaps both.

Yaka, who will present his team's findings at the Facing Tomorrow 2011 conference in Jerusalem next week, sees possibilities not just for drug addicts but also those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and other psychological conditions.

Of course, it remains unclear whether the protein erases selective memories associated with drugs, or if other pleasure-and-reward memories are also affected. Will one also forget the sweetness of chocolate? The ecstasies of copulation? The kiss of a gentle summer's breeze?

If so, will it be worth it?