Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing in Addiction Treatment?

Manual using virtual technology gogglesTechnology has radically changed our lives. You can book a flight using your smartphone while waiting in line at the grocery store, work remotely from virtually anywhere and some cars can actually do the parallel parking for you.

And, some scientists are exploring how virtual reality technology can be used to advance the field of addiction recovery. Researchers at the Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea are investigating the use of virtual reality (VR) as a form of addiction therapy. Specifically, they are exploring how virtual reality technology may help individuals with an addiction to alcohol.

Doug Hyun Han, MD, PhD and his team wanted to better understand the effects of VR therapy in the context of addiction. In most applications, VR therapy is designed to help the patient by reducing their physiological responses to common triggers and to help them practice healthy coping mechanisms.

For the duration of the study, the research participants were exposed to a total of 10 virtual reality sessions over the course of five weeks. During each of those episodes, the patients were exposed to three different scenarios. One was relaxing, another was filled with relapse-inducing triggers and the third represented a very negative experience where they were exposed to individuals getting sick from alcohol.

Dr. Han and his team found that after their VR experiences, the brain scans of the research participants had changed. The heightened brain activity was less sensitive to stimuli. According to Han, this indicated a “dampened craving for alcohol.”

While the preliminary results are positive, additional research still needs to be conducted.

“Although this pilot study seems to indicate that virtual reality may produce some changes in brain metabolism, this is not yet studied as a treatment approach. Much more research work needs to be done to be able to determine if ‘virtual reality’ treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” said Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada.

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