Drug rehabilitation implies a comprehensive set of measures, including medications, counseling, etc. However, there is one more approach that can become an integral aspect of rehabilitation, as it can complement other activities. This approach is virtual reality therapy.
The video game industry is flourishing, and graphics are becoming more and more realistic. Apart from entertainment, virtual reality can be used for medical purposes, and new studies, which are being conducted now, suggest that these technologies can be of use when treating addictions of various kinds, including drug addiction.
A team of investigators from Duke University is working on a study in which their aim is to find out whether virtual reality can help prevent relapse in those undergoing rehabilitation. What they offer is to help an addicted person develop a strategy to assuage their cravings. Here is how it works.
In a lab, a person sees a virtual pub, party, den or whatever place he or she used to take drugs in. There are thousands of cues that can trigger cravings: from postures and cigarettes to toilet seats and glasses. The patient feels as if he is at a party or in a den, and the environment reminds him of his previous experience. He wants to refuse, but he cannot – the cravings are too strong to bear. He accepts that pill a virtual friend offers. Game over.
The drug is virtual, so no harm to health is done. It’s a defeat that a patient can learn from, and that’s where the investigators’ voices come in handy.
The patient enters the virtual den again. Here they are – other addicts and people offering you to get high. Or, which is even more likely, he sees something that makes him want to get that very pill or weed he craves. But then he hears a voice – a voice telling him to lay the joystick down and let the craving go away. The voice also asks the patient to rate the cravings he experiences. He waits for several minutes, and the feeling starts dissipating. He overcame it – for now, the craving is gone. It’s at this moment that he hears a series of beeping sounds that are designed to help him form associations between the craving-free state and hearing these signals.
What are these games for?
This approach can be called “craving management”: just like some people develop stress management skills, cravings can also be controlled. Instead of taking risks and letting those undergoing rehabilitation test their willpower in reality by letting them go to parties where they can get drugs, the researchers suggest using special virtual environments that can help develop a strategy to manage cravings and get rid of them. Patients can even make a call to hear the same beeping sounds to trigger new associations so that they could let the craving go away.
The approach has already been tested in smokers, where two groups of smokers willing to quit were used. Out of the 46 adults who participated in the study, one group used nicotine replacement therapy, whereas the other group also got virtual reality treatment (besides the nicotine therapy). When the researchers compared the results, they found that the second group turned out to have lower smoking and craving rates.
Another advantage of the approach is that it is more affordable than building a mock bar. It definitely takes a lot of time to design custom environment for a particular patient, but it is still more affordable that building custom bars.
The researchers note that more trials are needed, as they tested the therapy only in smokers. The next stage of the project, which is already underway, is finding out whether virtual reality can help drug abusers get rid of the addiction.