A Duke University researcher is studying whether virtual reality can be used to reduce cravings in people who are addicted. The goal is to help them develop coping strategies that they can use in the real world, Popular Science reports.
A person using virtual reality for addiction treatment is hooked up to a simulator, and enters a virtual environment with one of their triggers, such as a crack pipe or bottle of alcohol. Someone in the scene offers them their drug of choice. Researchers slowly add cues to the virtual environment, or change the situation, based on the patient’s history.
A voice tells the person to put down the joystick and look around the room without speaking, to allow their craving to dissipate. The voice asks them to rate their cravings periodically.
The research is spearheaded by Zach Rosenthal, who receives funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Department of Defense. He uses virtual reality to trigger a reaction, and then teaches patients to cope with it. The method is called cue reactivity, which has long been used for treating phobias.
Dr. Rosenthal believes virtual reality is more effective than showing someone a real-life trigger, such as a lighter or empty bottle, in a lab setting. His hope is that creating a virtual world that is similar to the patients’ environment will help them transfer the lessons to the real world.
Rosenthal has been using virtual reality to treat substance abuse in veterans. The soldiers have post-traumatic stress syndrome. The program trains veterans’ minds not to respond to cravings when they are faced with temptations such as alcohol or drugs. Veterans participating in the research receive cellphone calls several times daily that transmit a tone to remind them about the steps they have learned to deal with their cravings.