Creating New Memories for Addiction Treatment

Creating New Memories for Addiction Treatment

Therapy for addictions often takes many forms, involving both group and individual sessions and the involvement of family members for support and transition back to situations that invoke old behavior patterns. Often, therapy involves working on diminishing an old association that triggers a behavior pattern.

To diminish the association, therapists often work with the patient on establishing a new association to a stimulus. For instance, if a bar setting triggers a response to smoke for a patient trying to stop smoking, a therapist may encourage a different association with bars. However, when the patient encounters the stimulus in a real-world setting, the cigarettes win out and the patient relapses. In response to this problem, many therapists instead encourage the patient to avoid the stimulus altogether, or as much as possible.

An article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, concludes that this method is not effective because the therapist has no control over the environments that the patient is in. The authors of the paper are Ralph R. Miller, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and SUNY’s Mario A Laborda.

Miller says that a more effective route is to make the new memory as strong as possible. The process, referred to as “extinction” by experts, is a way of teaching the patient new memories that replace the old memories. It is also often referred to as “exposure therapy.”

The researchers believe that there are four key elements to making the extinction memory more vibrant and more long-lasting. The first is to give more therapy, and the second is to conduct the sessions in various locations and settings, such as in different rooms. The third key is to strategically space the extinction sessions over the period of therapy. Finally, the paper recommends that the treatment sessions be separated by time.

Miller explains that strategically spacing the sessions to increase the therapy’s effectiveness takes advantage of known principles of learning. Increasing practice reinforces what the patient has learned and spacing the sessions provides better results than lumping all of the sessions close together.

Miller also explains the importance of animal laboratory studies in discovering new addiction treatment options. The use of animals is improving, says Miller, because there have been new developments in the modeling of human psychopathology for not only screening medications, but also for understanding behavioral treatments.

The paper highlights the use of careful timing and varied location contexts to reinforce the use of new memories to overcome an addiction.

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