Can Virtual Reality Help Heroin Users Resist Cravings?

By Zachary Siegel 03/01/16

Can virtual reality therapy strengthen one’s resistance?

Can Virtual Reality Help Heroin Users Resist Cravings?
Photo via Shutterstock/Barone Firenze

Researchers believe that placing heroin users in realistic virtual simulations that trigger heroin cravings could help them learn techniques to avoid using in the real world.

Virtual reality is carving out a very real space in the treatment of mental illness. So far, virtual reality therapy (VRT) has shown promise in treating PTSD, alcoholism, eating disorders, and tobacco addiction. The newest study to use virtual worlds involves heroin users walking through “heroin cave,” or a simulated house party filled with stimuli and triggers to test an individual's coping skills.

The study, conducted by the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, uses several cameras that project avatars and realistic environments with which heroin users can interact. The basic idea is a behavioral one, that resisting cravings and triggers in a virtual world may affect heroin use in the real world. One simulation shows a house party where heroin is snorted, and one where it is injected. Can this virtual experience strengthen one’s resistance? 

The creators of the “heroin cave” said the virtual environments took nearly a year to build, with immense attention paid to every detail. In order to recreate the simulated environments, field researchers visited real life locations where people shoot up, and even had users wear motion capture suits to get the exact sequence of a real injection. 

Every detail is accounted for. On the back patio of the house party, there is an open pizza box, some wrinkled cash on a coffee table, and a cigarette lighter, all of which are meant to simulate a realistic environment and trigger a heroin craving.

"In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong," Patrick Bordnick, an associate dean of research for the Graduate School of Social Work and one of the study leaders, told Reuters. "They know they're in a therapist's office and the drug isn't there. We need to put patients in realistic virtual reality environments and make them feel they are there with the drug, and the temptation, to get a clearer picture and improve interventions." 

Bordnick has used virtual reality in multiple previous experiments. Data from one study on tobacco addiction demonstrated participants are more confident not to give into temptation after learning coping strategies in the simulated world. 

"We want to know if decreasing craving in a lab modifies heroin use in the real world," Bordnick said. Because heroin both physically and mentally holds great power, preventing relapse is an area in need of greater study. This newest virtual experiment may lend itself to better understanding and implementing relapse prevention. 

See the virtual reality cave in action:


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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.