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How Virtual Reality Can Treat Drug Addiction?

A new collection of virtual reality worlds designed to recreate the environment of an addict could help people develop coping strategies to stay clean.

Virtual reality trials done with addicts in North Carolina have tested the reaction of subjects hooked up to the system and sent to an approximation of their environment of choice, be it a neighbourhood bar or a crack house.

Paraphernalia like pipes and needles can be added based on the addict's unique personal history.

Zach Rosenthal, an assistant professor at Duke, created the simulations with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Department of Defense and has tested the programs on about 90 people. The methodology used in this is called cue reactivity.

In this case, the cue is the trigger that sets a person off, such as a spider for people who suffer from arachnophobia or a bottle of beer for an alcoholic. The reactivity is just the reaction the cue induces - fear in the case of the spider or a bender in the case of the alcoholic.

So far, cue reactivity has been mostly used to treat phobias, slowly acclimating the patient to their trigger until they can cope with it.

But learning to acclimate is part of addiction treatment too, as addicts try to develop tools that can help them get through real-world cues without succumbing to their old habits.

Virtual Party:  Patrick "Spike" Bordnick. Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston. Research Support From National Institutes of Health (NIH): National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

A similar process is already weaved into some addiction treatments. Addicts will be presented with an empty bottle or a cigarette lighter which can trigger their craving so they can understand coping strategies. Still, these exercises could be done only in a lab. What virtual reality offers is the closest possible version of the real thing while still remaining controlled.

'If I wanted to teach you to ride a bike, I could show you a video of a bike,' said University of Houston professor Patrick Bordnick. 'But wouldn't it be better if I could actually get you on a real bike?'

The environments are able to be customized to each addict's memory, with the Budweiser they'd ask for in the real world appearing exactly the same in virtual reality.

Most of the experiments have dealt with smokers and alcoholics but the environments are being expanded to accommodate users who favour harder drugs.

A feasibility study treating 46 adult smokers for ten weeks gave one group virtual reality treatment and nicotine replacement therapy while the other got along without the simulated worlds.

The study found the group getting virtual sessions had a 'significantly lower' instance of smoking rates and cravings.

'The thing we don't really take into account [with traditional cue reactivity studies] is that the environment itself can serve as a cue,' Amy Traylor, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama said.

The treatment is still far too new to have any definitive conclusions drawn, and researchers are viewing it as a compliment to more traditional forms of addiction treatment.


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