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Can a Common Blood Pressure Drug Wipe Memories of Cocaine Use?

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Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently announced a potential pharmacological breakthrough in the treatment of cocaine addiction.

Believe it or not, the answer to this particular addiction might lie in a common blood pressure drug. Propranolol, a drug currently used to treat both high blood pressure and anxiety, has been shown to have positive effects in preventing an addict’s brain from accessing the memories associated with cocaine.

Your Mind’s Playing Tricks

Memories associated with drug use are extremely powerful for addicts. Seeing anything that is associated with a drug of choice immediately sets off a chain reaction that can quickly derail sobriety. For example, coming across something like a mirror that was used to snort cocaine or driving by an old drug dealer’s house can immediately send a cocaine addict’s brain into overdrive. They instinctively begin to relive the feelings of getting high and, suddenly, all they can think of are the “good” feelings associated with the drug.

Devin Mueller, assistant professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a co-author of the study, admits that cocaine is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome. In fact, 80 percent of all cocaine addicts end up relapsing within six months of achieving sobriety. With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why a potential propranolol breakthrough is so encouraging.

“Right now, there are no FDA-approved medications that are known to successfully treat cocaine abuse,” says Mueller. “Only those that are used to treat the symptoms of cocaine withdrawal, which are largely ineffective at preventing relapse.”

Blocking Harmful Memories

With cocaine-associated memories being such a powerful deterrent, having access to a therapeutic treatment that blocks the retrieval of these memories would improve treatment success by leaps and bounds. While the University of Wisconsin study was conducted on lab rats, the effects of propranolol were long-lasting and “could be permanent.” What’s more, the effects held up under stressful conditions. Lab rats dosed with the blood pressure medication remained sober, even in the presence of stimuli shown to induce relapse.

Now What?

The next step in the research process is to determine which specific areas of the brain are affected by propranolol. With that information, scientists hope to control the retrieval of  cocaine-associated memories and treat the addiction more effectively.

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