13 May Memory Exercises as a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction
People who abuse and later become addicted to drugs tend to exhibit strong signs of impulsive behavior and a relative disregard for the long-term implications of their actions. Current research indicates that these characteristics have very little to do with the moral fiber of drug users and quite a lot to do with underlying brain tendencies that make many abusers and addicts unusually susceptible to limited, short-term thinking. According to findings reported in 2012 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, much of this susceptibility stems from lack of an ability to effectively use memory and recall the consequences of previous experiences. When given a course of memory training exercises, drug abusers and addicts show signs of memory improvement that may contribute to their ability to resist future impulses toward drug use.
Behavioral scientists can get a reasonably accurate picture of a person’s relative degree of impulsivity by determining his or her willingness to delay gratification in the present for the sake of greater rewards in the future. In one type of procedure used to determine this willingness, a test subject is promised access to a large amount of money at some point in the future, then told that he or she can collect a certain percentage of that money now by relinquishing rights to the future reward. Most people will accept this arrangement if they receive a large enough percentage of the promised money. According to the assumptions underlying the test, relatively impulsive people will accept smaller amounts of money in the present than relatively non-impulsive people. This is true because relatively non-impulsive people can “see” their future reward and calculate the long-term benefits of patience and goal-oriented planning. Relatively impulsive people typically demonstrate a lack of these future-oriented skills.
Brain Circuitry and the Impact of Memory
When they undergo the type of testing described above, drug abusers and addicts show a much smaller willingness to delay gratification than their testing counterparts who don’t use drugs, according to findings reported in 2011 by a team of researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In addition, drug abusers and addicts commonly demonstrate a poor ability to use working memory, a form of memory that acts as a sort of “temporary storage” and allows the brain to comprehend, recall, and employ information that has a direct bearing on a person’s immediate surroundings, circumstances and thought processes.
These two facts seem to be related. When determining its level of willingness to delay gratification, the brain apparently relies on two different pathways or circuits that have opposing perspectives on the merits of delaying a reward. One pathway, which involves structures in the brain known as the amygdala and the striatum, actively produces impulses designed to obtain a short-term reward. The second pathway, which mainly involves a portion of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, puts the brakes on impulses from the first pathway and facilitates complex thinking that puts risk and reward in a much more comprehensive, long-term context. Essentially, some people have stronger impulse-oriented circuitry in their brains, while others have stronger control-oriented circuitry.
The researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences believe that a functional working memory is key to activating the control-oriented brain circuitry that emphasizes the big picture over short-term rewards. Without a properly functioning working memory, this circuitry loses its ability to reference past experiences and determine a present course of action that emphasizes perspective over impulsivity. Since drug abusers and addicts have problems with their working memory, they literally lack the means to gain needed perspective on their behaviors.
Effects of Memory Exercises
As a test of their theories, the researchers performed a multi-step experiment. First, they recruited a group of people with histories of stimulant abuse and addiction and used standard behavioral testing to determine these individuals’ baseline willingness to delay gratification for a long-term reward. After determining this baseline, they subjected half of the study’s participants to a series of exercises designed to improve their working memories; the rest of the study’s participants were subjected to a series of fake exercises that did not improve working memory. When retested for their willingness to delay gratification, the study participants who received memory training exhibited a 50 percent decrease in their impulsive, short-term thinking. In contrast, the participants who received no real memory training exhibited the same level of impulsivity that they exhibited at the beginning of the study.
The largest reductions in impulsive thinking occurred in those study participants who performed the best during memory training, the researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences report. However, despite these findings, as of 2013 no one knows for sure what role memory training can or will play in the real-world treatment of people in recovery from drug abuse or drug addiction. Considerable additional research is required before abuse and addiction specialists can determine the technique’s true effectiveness or potential role in a larger treatment approach.
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