Science Interviews

Interview

Fri, 13th Apr 2012

Modifying Memories to Treat Drug Addiction and the Effects of Social Status on Health

Barry Everitt, University of Cambridge
Jenny Tung, University of Chicago
Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh
John Barrow, University of Cambridge.

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Modifying Memories to Treat Drug Addiction

Recovering drug addicts can reduce their chances of relapse by manipulating their memories of drugs use.

The process of extinction – where cues of drug use such as videos of others using drugs are shown over a period of time without actually administering theheroin injection drugs– has previously been shown to reduce cravings in the clinic. But effectiveness in the real world can been limited.

Now, reporting in the journal Science, Lin Lu from Peking University has found that briefly exposing addicts to these cues, up to an hour before then treating them through this longer process of extinction, can help retrieve and re-write their memories of drug use, reducing their chances of relapse.

Barry Everitt from the University of Cambridge comments...

Barry -   The key point really is that there's this process called extinction where you keep presenting stimuli that are associated with something like a drug, again and again, and again.  So then the stimuli change from meaning drug to meaning no drug, and so, you tend to stop responding to it. When the person goes back out onto the streets and encounter those stimuli again, they haven’t lost their value at all.  What happens when you do this brief retrieval before you do these things in training is that the contact specificity seems to have gone and the memory is erased.  You seem to unlearn the fact that the stimuli ever meant drug and it doesn’t seem to come back and it doesn’t matter where you go.

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The Healthy side of Social Ranking

Social status can alter the expression of genes and consequently the health of female macaque monkeys.

Working with females in 10 macaque social groups, Jenny Tung from the University of Chicago found differences in the expression and activity of 1000 genes, as well as levels of immune response, depending on a monkeys social ranking within the group.

The findings, published in the journal PNAS, showed that monkeys with a higher social status had increased levels of immune regulation and inflammatory control based on these changes in expression with activity changing with any rises or falls in social rank.

Jenny -   Social dominance rank in female rhesus macaques has a strong and pervasive impact on gene expression.  We think that this signature is plastic and responds to changes in one’s social environment.  The findings that social stress influence the genome in such a potent manner is likely to be paralleled in humans.

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Asteroid Craters give Clues to Life on Mars

chesapeake craterCraters formed by asteroid collisions could be a good place to search for life on other planets according to research in the journal Astrobiology.

Studying craters on Earth, Charles Cockell from the University of Edinburgh found microbes living deep beneath the Chesapeake Bay crater in the US which was formed by an asteroid colliding 35 million years ago.

These findings suggest that similar crater sites on other planets could be hosting life beneath their surface.

Charles -   What this work shows is asteroid and comet impacts can actually be good for life by creating fractures to which energy and nutrients can flow.  So rather than just being catastrophic, they can be beneficial to life. This might also show that if we’re to look for life in other planets, perhaps the deep subsurface of fractured impact craters, such as on Mars, would be the best places to look.

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Running Faster with Mathematics

And finally, Athletes could be helped to run faster without any additional training according to mathematicians at University of Cambridge.

John Barrow calculated that if factors such as reaction time to the start gun, wind conditions and altitude were taken into account, Olympic champion Usain Bolt could improve his 100m sprint time by up to 0.12 seconds…

 And that work was published in the journal Significance.

 

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