VSL:SCIENCE // Addicted to cocaine? Forget about it.

What causes addiction? The answer seems obvious: People get addicted to substances, like cocaine, that provide the brain with a rush of ecstatic pleasure. This is known as the chemical theory of addiction, since it places the blame on these dangerous chemicals that somehow seduce our neurons.

New research, however, suggests that the persistence of addiction isn’t simply about feel-good white powders and brown crystals. Instead, addicts may be driven by something much less tangible: memory. Consider this recent experiment: Rats were put in a cage with a lever that dispensed a cocaine solution. Not surprisingly, the rats quickly got addicted to the liquid drug and endlessly pressed the lever. They were then forced to endure a few weeks of forced sobriety, like celebrities sent to rehab.

Before being returned to the “cocaine cage,” some of the rats were given injections of an experimental drug that inhibits the recollection of memories. While all of the rats tried pressing the lever again when first returned to the cage — they still wanted to get high — only the untreated animals kept on pressing the lever when no coke was supplied. (This stubborn junkie behavior lasted for several days.) In contrast, the rats treated with the memory inhibitor quickly learned to stop pressing the lever. (Sounds like a great Pixar short to us . . . but we digress.) Because they had lost their memories of addiction, they no longer seemed to crave cocaine.

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