Could Virtual Reality Help Treat Alcoholism?

Could Virtual Reality Help Treat Alcoholism?

By Zachary Siegel 06/25/15

The newest research shows some support for the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy.

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Role playing takes on a whole new meaning in the 21st century where virtual reality therapy (VRT) is being used to treat alcoholism and with promising results.

A small study in South Korea put people with alcohol use disorder in three different virtual situations. The three scenes included one that was a calm relaxing environment, another that was called "high risk," meaning people were in a restaurant with others drinking, and the third was the "aversive" scene, which consisted of sights, sounds, and smells of people sick from drinking too much alcohol.

Each participant went through a one week-long detox program followed by 10 sessions of VRT given twice a week over a five-week period. Before the 10 weeks of VRT commenced, each participant underwent positron emission tomography (PET) as well as computerized tomography (CT) scans. This was done to get a baseline of the individual's brain metabolism.

At baseline, when compared with a group of “healthy brains,” the people with alcohol use disorder had a speedier metabolism in their limbic circuit, which houses the nucleus accumbens or what is commonly called “the pleasure center.” This faster metabolism indicates a heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as alcohol.

Senior researcher Doug Hyun Han, MD, PhD, of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea, told Science Daily after 10 sessions of VRT, the quickened metabolism found in the brains at baseline was dramatically slower. This suggests less sensitivity to stimuli and an attenuated craving for alcohol, according to Han.

Previously, VRT has been used in the treatment of phobias and PTSD. Virtual reality therapy is based on the notion that exposing people to triggering situations in a safe space would lead them to better manage their fear and anxiety in real life.

With respect to substance use disorders, little is known about the efficacy of VRT. According to Han, what little evidence there is has been shown to reduce people’s cravings for nicotine and alcohol.

Han also noted why he is optimistic toward VRT as an effective approach in treating addictions. He said it requires people to actively participate in sessions that are “tailor made” for that individual, putting him or her in real life situations.

Future research is still needed in the field of VRT to show whether or not it can help people avoid future relapses.

You can read the full study here.

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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.

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