Researchers Use VR To Help Teach Addicts How To Cope With Cravings

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Researchers from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work have created a virtual reality house party, complete with heroin using party guests, that it will use to help local addicts learn to cope in environments that would ordinarily trigger cravings and potentially a relapse in their recovery. The method has yet to be validated, but researchers are hopeful that by guiding addicts through the environment with the coaching of a therapist, the tool could replace traditional role-playing as a teaching aid.

Called the “heroin cave” addicts can move around the virtual environment and engage with digital avatars at the party. Some of those avatars are snorting heroin, while others are injecting the drug. A therapist guides addicts through the home, and uses the encounters with the presence of drugs as an opportunity to evoke the kinds of cravings that users will feel in the real world. Patrick Bordnick, one of the lead researchers on the study, explains, "In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong. They know they’re in a therapist’s office and the drug isn’t there. We need to put patients in realistic virtual reality environments and make them feel they are there with the drug.”

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The team behind the latest effort has had past success using virtual reality to help addicts learn more effective coping methods and Bordnick reports that he is cautiously optimistic that this study will yield favorable results. The team has already concluded studies showing that virtual reality training aids can help people fight nicotine cravings. Several other studies have shown that virtual reality can be used to activate alcohol and marijuana cravings in people suffering with those additions.

While role playing offers addicts an opportunity to practice coping methods, that practice would likely be much more effective if they were feeling actual cravings, so they could understand what works and how to use the tools to calm those cravings and deal with the situation.

Now that the virtual reality environment is ready, researchers will being recruiting participants to study the effect the training aid has on overall recovery efforts.


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