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Manipulating memories of people formerly addicted to drugs may help them avoid relapse, a new study suggests.

The researchers at Peking University said memories that link cues, such as needles or cigarettes, with the pleasurable effects of drugs, cause craving and lead to relapse, the BBC reports. They tried “rewriting” these memories to reduce cravings.

They first tested the idea in rats, and then studied the idea in 66 people who previously had used heroin. Participants watched a short video of a natural scene, or of people smoking and injecting heroin. The movie of heroin use brought up memories of drug use.

All of the participants then spent an hour watching more drug-related movies and pictures, and even handled fake heroin, called an “extinction session.” Some people waited 10 minutes between watching the initial video and the extinction session, while others waited six hours. This process was repeated two days in a row.

Later tests showed that compared with the other groups, people who saw the initial drug video 10 minutes before the extinction session reported less craving after seeing drug cues one day, one month and even six months afterwards. They also had less of a rise in blood pressure in response to seeing drug paraphernalia.

The researchers found people who waited six hours between seeing the initial drug video and undergoing the extinction session did not get the same effect, according to Science News.

The findings are published in the journal Science.


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