Can Virtual Reality Help Alcoholics Manage Cravings?

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A new virtual reality therapy may be able to help reduce cravings in those who struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction, according to a small study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

VR TherapyWhile the study relied on a small sample of only 12 patients, the researchers behind the study say they believe the findings show the potential for virtual reality as a therapy for alcohol use disorders.

Virtual reality therapy, a form of psychotherapy using virtual reality technology to give patients a simulated experience that can be used to diagnose and treat psychological conditions, has already gained legitimacy with its use in the treatment of phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The technology is already popular in the fields of psychology and psychiatry,” said senior researcher Doug Hyun Han, M.D., Ph.D., of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea.

The basic principle behind the concept is to expose individuals to situations which typically trigger fear and anxiety within a safe and controlled space. This in turn allows the individual to learn better management techniques or those situations in real life.

For the new study, the researchers recruited 12 patients being treated for alcohol dependence. All participants underwent a week-long detox program before taking 10 sessions of virtual reality therapy, done twice a week over five weeks.

The sessions involved three unique virtual scenarios: one included a relaxing environment, another took place in a “high-risk” situation in a restaurant where others are drinking, and the third “aversive” situation.

In the aversion scenario, participants were surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of people getting sick from too much alcohol.

Han also said the sessions are “tailor-made” for each individual.

Before beginning the program, all participants underwent positron emission tomography (PET) and computerized tomography (CT) brain scans, which allowed the researchers to study the patients’ brain metabolism.

The findings showed that when compared to a group of healthy control participants, the alcohol-dependent patients had a faster metabolism in the brain’s limbic circuit, indicating a heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as alcohol.

Following the virtual-reality therapy, however, the alcohol-dependent patients’ brain metabolism slowed, which Han said suggested a dampening of the craving for alcohol.

Han said the therapy provides a promising approach to treating alcohol dependence, partially because it places patients in situations similar to real life and requires active participation.

However, the researchers say larger, long-term studies are still needed to show whether the virtual reality therapy is effective in helping patients remain abstinent and avoid relapses.

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