Risk of relapse is a major challenge in the treatment of substance use disorders. Several types of learning and memory mechanisms are involved in substance use and have implications for relapse. Associative memories form between the effects of drugs and the surrounding environmental stimuli, and exposure to these stimuli during abstinence causes stress and triggers drug craving, which can lead to relapse. Understanding the neural underpinnings of how these associations are formed and maintained will inform future advances in treatment practices. A large body of research has expanded our knowledge of how associative memories are acquired and consolidated, how they are updated through reactivation and reconsolidation, and how competing extinction memories are formed. This review will focus on the vast literature examining the mechanisms of cocaine Pavlovian associative memories with an emphasis on the molecular memory mechanisms and circuits involved in the consolidation, reconsolidation, and extinction of these memories. Additional research elucidating the specific signaling pathways, mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, and epigenetic regulation of gene expression in the circuits involved in associative learning will reveal more distinctions between consolidation, reconsolidation, and extinction learning that can be applied to the treatment of substance use disorders.
Keywords: Addiction; Consolidation; Extinction; Learning; Reconsolidation.