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Can Virtual Reality Help Addicts Beat Relapse?

By Ben Feuerherd 04/19/13

Researchers believe exposing addicts to simulated triggers can help them beat real-world relapse.

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What a virtual "using environment" might look
like.
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Relapse is a reality for many recovering addicts, but virtual reality may soon help them prevent it. A number of researchers are experimenting with a cutting-edge new technique that employs virtual reality to help addicts learn to beat potential triggers. Duke University assistant professor Zach Rosenthal has been using the technique, called "virtual-reality cue reactivity," to treat addiction for years, with funding from the National Institute of Drug Addiction and the Department of Defense. His patients are hooked up to a virtual simulator wherein they are transported to a realistic environment and tempted by potential triggers, such as crack pipes, booze, cigarettes and cocaine. By learning to face these triggers in a virtual world, researchers hope addicts can develop and practice coping mechanisms that they can employ in the non-virtual world. The practice of "cue reactivity" is not entirely new; researchers in the past have attempted to treat alcoholism and nicotine addiction by exposing addicts to potential triggers in a lab. But these experiments were often limiting since they weren't realistic enough. "The thing we don't really take into account [with traditional cue reactivity studies] is that the environment itself can serve as a cue," says Amy Traylor, a researcher at the University of Alabama.

Computer-simulated immersion may be more effective since it gives the patient a more convincing sense of what it's like to be triggered in real life. "I started looking in the lab one day and thought, the environment, the context is off… no one's ever smoked in this lab," says Patrick Bordnick, of the University of Houston. Bordnick and Traylor were some of the first to experiment with the new virtual technique, which they have used to treat an addiction to cigarettes. Most of these studies just test craving, but don't actually treat addiction. Now, though, researchers have begun looking into the possibility of treating cravings for drugs like crack, cocaine and heroin using a simulation. It remains to be seen whether this will work. But in a recent study by Bordnick, virtual-reality treatment resulted in "significantly lower" nicotine cravings among a group of smokers.

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Benjamin Feuerherd is a city reporter at the New York Post. He has previously worked for The Daily Beast and NBC. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter

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