Virtual reality helps cure real addictions

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Scientists believe that virtual worlds can help patients in therapy to overcome addictions..

A new study by University of Houston associate professor Patrick Bordnick reveals that a virtual reality environment can provide a safe haven in which patients can practise how to say 'no' when offered drugs or alcohol.

"As a therapist, I can tell you to pretend that my office is a bar, and I can ask you to close your eyes and imagine the environment. But you will know that it is not real," said Bordnick.

"In this virtual environment you are at a bar or at a party or in a real-life situation. What we found was that participants had real-life responses."

Bordnick studied 40 alcohol-dependent people who were not receiving treatment (32 men and eight women). Wearing a virtual reality helmet, each was guided through 18 minutes of virtual social environments that included drinking.

Each participant's drink of choice was included in each scene. Using a game pad, the participants rated their cravings and attention to the alcohol details in each room. Each then was interviewed following the experience.

"What we found was that the virtual reality environments were real enough that their cravings were intensified," said Bordnick.

"So now we can develop coping skills and practise them in these very realistic environments until the skills are working tools to use in real life."

The test environments, developed with a company called Virtually Better, feature different scenarios that an addict may find challenging.

These included a bar with drinking patrons, a house party with guests drinking and smoking, a convenience store with cigarettes and alcohol within reach, a designated smoking area outside a building, and a room with an arguing couple.

The environments use actors in each scene as opposed to computer-generated characters.

The study added another layer of realism by spraying scents that the participant may encounter in the various scenarios, such as cigarette smoke, alcoholic beverages, pizza and aromas associated with the outdoors.

"This study shows us the value of using virtual reality as a tool for assessing and treating addictions. Future studies should explore the importance of environmental settings and other cues on cravings and relapse," Bordnick said.
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