The Latest Science or Just a Fad?
Virtual reality is having something of a moment right now. It’s gaining popularity in the technology and science fields, is being used in art, and is poised to take the video game world by storm.
It also shows real promise at treating alcoholism.
That’s the latest from a South Korean study. The research, done by Chung-Ang University scientists and lead by Doug Hyun Han, was recently published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The actual therapeutic interventions, described below, are fairly straightforward in their approach to treating alcohol use disorders. What makes this type of counseling so revolutionary are the implications.
If virtual reality can be used to treat alcoholism, as it’s currently being used to treat both phobias and PTSD, well, that’s a game changer. Drug and alcohol rehabs may be forever changed.
This may be the start of a new era of addiction treatment – an era that uses technology to keep patients in a safe and controlled environment, while simulating dangerous and “relapse heavy” situations.
Virtual Reality Treatment
So, how exactly are South Korean researchers using virtual reality to help treat alcohol dependence? Well, their study went a little something like this.
Researchers examined the “brain metabolism” of ten alcoholics using CT scans and other measuring tools. They found that these alcoholics, across the board, had increased activity in the limbic area of the brain.
The limbic system if the area of the brain linked to emotions and behavior.
Next, the ten participants went through a typical alcohol detox program. Following their detox, they engaged in two virtual reality therapy sessions each week. This continued for five weeks.
During these virtual reality therapy sessions, participants viewed a number of real world scenarios. One was “to relax them.” One was to “trigger alcohol cravings by showing situations where people drink.” One was “meant to present drinking in an unfavorable light by showing people getting sick from alcohol. To enhance the final scene, participants drank a drink that tasted like vomit” (Health Central).
Pretty interesting, right? Well, it gets better. Following this five week treatment, researchers again examined participants’ brains. Their findings? Not only had the limbic areas of the brain calmed down, suggesting “normal” emotions and behavior, but other areas associated with alcohol dependence had also changed.
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What’s Next for Virtual Reality Therapy?
It’s not hyperbole to say that virtual reality therapy could be a game changer. It could represent the next phase of treating alcohol and substance use disorders worldwide.
The key word there, though, is could. This was a small study. An interesting study with potentially huge implications, to be sure, but a small study nonetheless.
More research needs to be done. This study needs to be repeated a handful of times to make sure the information it presents can be replicated. It needs to be repeated on those who’re addicted to other substances. It needs to be larger in scope and tested in different cultures.
Researchers also need to examine the intersection of virtual reality therapy and more traditional treatments. Remember how researchers gave participants a drink that mimicked the taste of vomit while they were watching people get sick from drinking?
That’s an incredibly interesting combination. It’s taking aversion therapy, an already controversial type of treatment, to the next level. This type of dual treatment presents significant advantages and certainly needs to be studied further.
Still, this study’s a promising start. The real world application of virtual reality to treat mental and behavioral health issues has been talked about for years. It may finally be here and that’s nothing short of extraordinary.