People, places, and things – How important are drug-related triggers for addiction relapse?

In cognitive behavioral therapy they’re a big part of the “Five W’s” = When, Where, Why, With, and What. In the various 12-step programs they’re simply referred to as “People, places, and things.” But no matter how you refer to them, drug-associated cues, or “triggers” as they are more commonly known, obviously play a big role in reminding addicted individuals about their drug-seeking behavior, and they are often enough to restart old behavior, even among those who have been abstinent for a while and especially when unprepared for their effect.

Different triggers to reactivate old behavior

Research on relapse (what researchers call reinstatement) has long shown that there are a number of things that can return a person, or an animal, to drug seeking after they have been abstinent for a while. Stress, small drug doses, and the presentation of triggers are all very capable of doing this, even after months of abstinence and likely even years. It’s probably not surprising that giving drugs to an abstinent person can make them want the drug again. In fact, I would venture to guess that most readers believe that this is the most powerful way to induce a relapse (assuming the initial exposure was out of a person’s control and doesn’t count).

Well, recent research suggests that in actuality, triggers, or those people, places, and things, might be more powerful or at least longer lasting relapse risks than even taking drugs!

Triggers, not drugs, are shown to be longest lasting relapse risk

Researchers in Japan trained mice to press a lever for meth, getting them to poke their nose into a hole 60 times for a total of 30 meth administration per three hour session. Every time they poked their nose in the right hole they got a shot of meth and a little light above their nose-poke hole went on (this will become the trigger in the end). Once they were doing this reliably the researchers took away the meth and the animals learned, within 10-20 days, that pressing the lever no longer got them a drug and reduced their number of presses to less than 15 presses per session.

After all this the researchers gave the mice an injection of meth 30 minutes before putting them back in the box – leading the mice to start pressing again for the drug even though in the previous session they has pretty much stopped pressing knowing that no drug was coming. Obviously, the drug injection caused the mice to relapse back into their drug seeking. But, as you can see from the figure below (on the left side, the right side shows that the mice didn’t poke their nose into a hole that did nothing as a control), this little trick only worked once, and the next time the mice were given a shot of meth before being put in the box (after once again being taken through extinction training teaching them that pressing the lever did nothing), they didn’t press the lever any more and just around not doing much.

For the following part of the study the researchers once again took the animals through extinction training (and once again the mice stopped pressing the lever for meth) and then in a following session reintroduced the little light that used to go on every time the mice originally got meth. Just like they did with the meth the animals immediately went back to pressing the lever like crazy, hoping that now that the light was back, so was their meth. Just like with the drug relapse experiment above, the researchers repeated this whole process over two months later, only this time, the little light managed to re-trigger the lever pressing again, unlike the one-trick-pony meth. Seeing this, the researchers went for broke and tried another run of this with the same animals, now following up five months after the last time the animals received meth when they pressed the lever. Again the little light got the animals to increase their pressing, only this time it was a little less impressive than the first two tries (but still significantly higher). All in all, the little light managed to restart the lever pressing by the mice three times and a full five month after the meth-relapse experiment had failed!!!

Conclusion, thoughts, and implications about triggers, relapse, and addiction

In a completely different article I’d written that researchers found a number of different patterns of relapse among alcoholics who went to rehab and that in fact, the vast majority of those who did relapse never went back to the kind of heavy drinking that characterized their earlier problem (see here for One is too many, a thousand not enough). While this research touches on a different aspect of relapse, it once again challenges our thinking about the crucial factors in relapse prevention among addicts. Everyone knows that triggers are important, but the fact that they are at least as powerful and apparently longer lasting dangers than even being re-exposed to the addictive drug is a novel one. Still, this isn’t very surprising given the very long-lasting impact of drugs of abuse (especially stimulants like crystal meth) on learning mechanisms. In my opinion, and based on my own experience, those changes are essentially permanent and the only thing that makes an ex-user less likely to run back to pressing that drug lever when being re-triggered 10 years later is the life they’ve built, the experience they have, and the training they’ve undergone in reacting to those triggers. As you can see from the graph above, if a person runs back to the drugs and actually starts using again on that first, second, or third exposure to a trigger they are likely to start the whole cycle again, possibly making it ever more difficult to escape the next time.

Obviously preventing trigger-induced relapse should be a major strategy of addiction treatment and indeed, from CBT relapse prevention strategies to groundbreaking medications that have been shown to be effective for relapse rate reduction (like Vivitrol, Buprenorphine, Bupropion, and more), there is quite a bit of effort going exactly that way.

Citation:

Yijin Yan, Kiyofumi Yamada, Atsumi Nitta  and Toshitaka Nabeshima (2007). Transient drug-primed but persistent cue-induced reinstatement of extinguished methamphetamine-seeking behavior in mice. Behavioral Brain Research, 177, 261-268.

Is anonymity the final shame frontier in addiction?

I’m a drug addict and a sex addict, and as far as I’m concerned, staying anonymous let’s me remain buried in shame, and a double life, that keeps me always one step ahead of those close to me. Did I say too much? Did I give away my secrets? None of those  questions matter when everyone knows everything there is to know about you. For a disease couched in anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior, there’s very little that can be more triggering.

The difficulty of confessing addiction

Obviously I’m not naive to the consequences of confessing to others, and I’ve had a few very uncomfortable conversations that ended in people losing my number or superiors telling me they didn’t need to know. When it comes to the former, it’s their choice, and it might be a wise one, but having those who stay close to me know my truths keeps me safe by making me accountable and protects others from being hurt. And I can hurt with the best of them. Maybe that’s why when it comes to physician treated addicted physicians, there are no secrets, no anonymity, the family and employers are made part of the process. Some notable addiction providers (like Journey Healing Centers and others) have programs that explicitly involve the family in the treatment process as well. Getting the secrets out works to break away from the shame.

We’re only as sick as our secrets, even together

On an organizational level, I understand the need for anonymity to avoid having any specific member represent the group. But that logic only holds when everyone is told to remain anonymous. Otherwise, the entire group represents itself, which is, if nothing else, truthful. If one person slips, relapses, or goes into a homicidal rampage, it only makes the rest of us look bad if no one knows that millions others are “the rest of us.”

Over and over I hear people talk about the secret of their addiction and the lies they have to tell to cover up their shameful acts. Unfortunately, that only contributes to the stigma of addicts and makes it all the more difficult  to get some perspective on the actual problem: We do things we don’t want to over and over regardless of how much they hurt us or those around us

If you’ve read anything on this site, you know that I believe in many factors that contribute to addiction, including biology, environment, experience, and their interactions. Still, when it comes down to it, the misunderstanding of addiction is often our number one problem. And anonymity does nothing to reduce that misunderstanding.

How we can make a difference

Media portrayals only exacerbate the problem as they show us stories of addicted celebrities who are struggling but then leave the story behind before any recovery occurs. That way we only get to see the carnage but have to look pretty hard to see anything more.

But we can change all this with a small, courageous, action. We can let those around us know that we’re addicts, that we’re doing our best to stop our compulsive behavior and that we want them to hold us accountable. If we slip, we can get back up because we don’t compound the shame of a relapse with lies we tell, and those around us know that even a relapse can be overcome because they’ve seen those examples over and over in all the other “confessed” addicts around.

It’s time to leave the addiction “closet” and start living. We may not be able to change who we are easily, but we can change the way we go about living and make it easier on ourselves and on others. By breaking our anonymity, we can help assuage our own shame and let everyone know that addiction is everywhere and that it can be successfully overcome.

Just a thought…

Triggers and relapse, a craving connection for addicts

I’ve already written about one reason why cravings make quitting difficult (find it here). However, cravings and triggers are not just abstract concepts; they are well known, important players in addiction research and I think they deserve some more attention.

What are triggers?

A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction (like a computer reminding a sex addict of porn). In addiction research, these are often simply called cues. The word comes from learning research in which a reward (or punishment) is paired with something (the cue).

For instance, in Pavlov‘s classic experiment, a dog heard a bell ring right before it would get served its daily portion of meat. The dog quickly learned to associate the bell with food, and would begin salivating as soon as the bell would ring, even before the food was presented. In this case, the bell was the cue, and food the reward it was paired with.

The story in drug addiction is similar. I’m sure many of you can relate to the overwhelming memories and emotions that seem to come out of nowhere when you hear music you used to get high to or pass a street where you used to buy drugs (or sex). Each of those examples is a trigger that is simply bringing about a similar reaction to Pavlov’s dog’s salivation. Seeing these things, or hearing them, creates an immediate response to the reward that it was paired with, the drug!

Triggers, cravings, drugs, and relapse

As if matters needed to be made worse, triggers not only bring about responses that make you think about the drug. In fact, over and over in learning and addiction research, it’s been shown that triggers actually bring back drug seeking, and drug wanting, behavior. As soon as a cue (or trigger) is presented, both animals and humans who have been exposed to drugs for an extended period of time, will go right back to the activity that used to bring them drugs even after months of being without it. In fact, their levels of drug seeking will bounce back as if no time has passed. Sound familiar?!

Given these findings, is it any wonder that cravings bring about relapse in so many addicts who are trying to quit? If simply thinking about, or hearing, something that was always tied to drugs can bring about such a strong response, what is an addict to do?

Is there a solution for addicts??

For now, the simplest way to break the trigger-response connection is simply repeated exposure without the reward. As bizarre as this may seem, staying away from the triggers can make their ability to bring back the old drug-behavior stronger. Obviously, this isn’t something that should be undertaken lightly. I’m currently working on putting together a drug treatment system that specifically addresses these issues so that with help, users can eventually release the hold that triggers have over them.

In the meantime, be honest with those around you, and if you’re seeing a therapist, or a good case manager, tell them about your triggers so that you can hopefully start talking about them, and re-triggering them in a safe environment. As always, feel free to email me with any questions you might have.

Drug use memories and relapse: Can medication provide addiction help?

About a year ago, while sitting in a lecture on learning and memory, the idea that certain drugs can affect the emotional responses to memory long after the memory itself has been formed came up. As someone interested in addiction research, the implication for treatment immediately came up in my head:

Could we reduce the effect of triggers by giving people a pill?

In one word – Yes! But, the answer is not, in fact, that simple. Even in the studies already done in PTSD patients, the memories have to be re-triggered and the drug given at exactly the right time to be effective. In fact, in humans, some of the best work has been done in PTSD patients immediately after the traumatic event.

Addiction help through relapse prevention

Still, a recent study in animals suggests that the theory is sound. By interfering with the activity of a neurotransmitter important in the formation of memories, researchers were able to stop animals trained to self-administer cocaine from doing so. The animals, which had been trained to push a lever for cocaine when a light went on, reduced, or even stopped responding after a single dose of a substance that blocked memory formation. Essentially, the researchers prevented the animals from relapse. Again, this only worked if the drug was given while the light (as in the drug-trigger) was presented at the same time.

More recent studies, using repeated doses of the drug propranolol, have been shown to have an even more promising effect. Check out my coverage of that research here.

Given the powerful role of triggers in relapse, this avenue of research has some promising possibilities for future treatment of drug addiction.