Study Finds Virtual Reality a Potential Tool for Treating Addiction
> 4/29/2008 12:35:47 PM

A number of treatment options are available to help individuals overcome addiction, and research is beginning to show that a new technique utilizing virtual reality technology may also be effective. In a study from the University of Houston, researchers evaluated the extent to which virtual reality can replicate the real-life experiences of alcoholics. Their results, which appear in the June issue of Addictive Behaviors, indicate that this technology can simulate difficult situations alcoholics often face during recovery and could be used to help them overcome cravings.

Environmental cues can trigger cravings, and virtual reality environments may allow individuals to rehearse how they will react to common alcohol-related cues. The researchers studied 40 alcohol-dependent individuals who were not currently receiving treatment. During 18 minute virtual reality sessions, the subjects were exposed to several social scenarios where alcohol was available, such a bar and a party. Also included were control scenarios that did not contain alcohol-related cues. The scenes were populated by human actors rather than computer-generated characters, and to further intensify the subjects' experiences, the researchers incorporated a machine that released relevant scents into the air: pizza, cigarette smoke, and alcohol.

The subjects rated the intensity of their cravings throughout the virtual reality session and were later interviewed. These assessments indicated that the subjects found the scenarios to be realistic, and the alcohol-related cues also had the intended effect: the subjects experienced an increase in cravings during scenes that involved these cues. Although the researchers did not examine how effectively the virtual reality sessions aided in addiction recovery, they did discuss implications for treatment. They explain that by being exposed to challenging scenarios and practicing their responses, individuals can develop coping strategies that work for them. While this same technique could be used without virtual reality technology, by having the individual imagine the situation, the researchers stress that in a more realistic setting, the individual's response will most closely resemble the response they will have in reality. And this will ensure that the coping strategies they develop will also work effectively in the real world.

Research has indicated that virtual reality technology may be a useful treatment for other mental health conditions as well, including post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. While this current study has indicated that virtual reality may be beneficial to alcoholics, future studies should use larger samples of subjects and investigate whether this treatment actually reduces the chance of relapse. With further examination of virtual reality as a treatment tool, we should gain better insight into the value of this technique.

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