Video games and simulated environments have been a source of recreation and entertainment for decades. Now they may also provide a solution to treat alcohol addiction. A preliminary study out of South Korea, involving ten patients with alcohol dependence, used virtual reality experiences to test patients’ reactions to certain situations.
Chung-Ang University Hospital senior researcher Dr. Doug Hyun and his colleagues believe the approach has promise because it puts patients in situations similar to real life and requires their active participation even though the situations aren’t “real” and pose no actual threat to the patients’ lives.
Participants detoxed for a week prior to going through virtual reality sessions using a three-dimensional (3-D) television screen twice a week for five weeks. During each session, the participants cycled through three virtual realities patterned after experiences they would have in real life. By mimicking these experiences, the virtual realities test patients’ reactions.
One reality was intended to relax them. The second was meant to test them by triggering alcohol cravings in a situation where patients were with other people who were drinking. The last reality’s goal was to make drinking seem unpleasant by putting the patients in a room with other people who were actively getting sick from alcohol. Participants also drank a liquid designed to taste like vomit during the last reality scenario.
While their realities were unreal and virtual, the patients’ brains showed actual physical changes according to researchers. Prior to the start of the therapy, researchers compared participants’ brain metabolism to that of people without a dependence on alcohol. The alcohol-dependent group showed higher metabolic activity in their brains’ limbic systems, which are tied to emotion and behavior.
Metabolic activity decreased in this area after five weeks of therapy, according to a report in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Alcohol cravings also decreased after the aversive scene, according to Dr. Han, but he speculated that there will need to be more research into the long-term results of virtual reality therapy as well as testing whether this method may work for other kinds of addiction.
Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, was not involved with the new study but seemed equally optimistic and realistic, saying that the “pilot seems to indicate that virtual reality may produce some changes in brain metabolism” but it “is not yet studied as a treatment approach.”
“Much more research needs to be done to be able to determine if ‘virtual reality’ treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder” in Western countries, he said. According to Dr. Le Foll, behavioral therapy combined with pharmaceuticals such as naltrexone, acamprosate or topiramate is the recommended treatment for alcohol use disorder. As more studies are done, we will be able to determine if virtual reality treatment will be an effective treatment in alcohol and possibly other addictions.