Training Memory to Treat Addiction
Given the option to receive one dollar today or 10 dollars next week, most of us would choose to wait for the larger sum. People addicted to stimulants, however, tend toward instant gratification and would likely take the dollar today rather than wait for 10. This inability to appreciate value in the future is called delay discounting, and it presents challenges to those treating addicts.
Studying the Addicted Brain
Working from the knowledge that regions and processes in the brain that are connected with memory overlap with those that are involved in consideration and placing value on the future, a research team at the University of Arkansas investigated whether working to improve a patient’s memory could produce concurrent improvements in his/her appreciation for delayed reward. The team’s spokesman, Warren K. Bickel Ph.D., said the study was focused on discovering a new approach in the treatment of addicts.
Participants in the study were patients in the midst of treatment for stimulant abuse. Researchers divided the patients into two groups who would both receive memory training:
- The experimental group was given memory tasks like remembering messages or memorizing word lists and then was rewarded financially according to performance.
- The control group was given the same assignments but was provided with an answer key so that memorization was not required to receive the reward.
The series of experiments indicated that training of working memory can decrease delay discounting. The research team believes that it may be the first study to demonstrate the correlation.
How We Make Decisions
The article published by the team in the journal Biological Psychiatry goes on to point out that the study’s findings support a neurobehavioral addiction decision systems hypothesis. This addiction hypothesis suggests decisions are reached based on two decision systems:
- The first system, called the impulsive decision system is connected to the gathering of immediate reinforcers
- The second system, called the executive decision system, is linked to planning and delayed outcomes.
The hypothesis states that a hyperactive impulse system and a hypoactive executive system can produce addiction. The study results also affirm neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change, in this case to reverse previous neurocognitive deficits. Future research is likely necessary to ascertain the strength of memory training and the range of which it may be expected to produce measurable results in treatment.
One of the article’s commentators from the Yale Department of Psychiatry praised the study’s work to develop new treatment methods that utilize naturally occurring processes such as working memory while, at the same time, calling for further studies targeting specific cognitive processes. The goal or measure of any of those studies in relation to addiction treatment will come in terms of measurably reducing delay discounting-related behaviors.