A preliminary study conducted in Soel, South Korea is aiming to give an interesting new use for virtual reality technologies, reports Reuters Health. The research involved 10 patients with alcohol dependence and showed hopeful results, putting patients in virtual situations similar to real life and making them actively participate, says Senior researcher Dr. Doug Hyun Han of Chun-Ang University Hospital, instead of the pills and behavioural therapy that has become commonplace.
Participants of the study were first put through a week long detox program, then thrust into the virtual reality sessions where they would face a 3D television screen twice a week for five weeks. Theses sessions cycled through three different situations, the first being a simple environment wherein the patients were meant to relax. The second introduced them into a situation that would spark their alcohol cravings, showing other people around them drinking. The last would then put them in a room where people were getting sick from alcohol, while also requiring the participant to drink a vomit-tasting concoction.
Prior to the therapy starting, the researchers compared the brain metabolism of the participants with a group of people without alcohol dependence using positron emission tomography (a specialized radiology procedure) and computerized tomography scans. The alcoholic group showed more metabolic activity in the limbic system of the brain, the area associated with emotions and behaviour. However, as they used the same method five weeks later researchers found the therapy had greatly reduced the activity in this area of the participants’ brains.
Dr. Han expressed that he was moderately happy with the results, saying in an email to Reuters that there will ‘need to be more research into long-term results of virtual reality therapy and testing whether this method may work for other kinds of addiction.’
Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic (among others) at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada echoed this sentiment, clarifying in a statement: “Although this pilot study seems to indicate that virtual reality may produce some changes in brain metabolism, this is not yet studied as a treatment approach.”
So while this may not mean that we’ll be using the Oculus Rift for AA meetings in the near future, it still opens up a curious new frontier in the world of addiction and mental health treatment. Currently, the recommended treatment for alcohol dependence is behavioural therapy combined with pharmaceuticals like naltrexone, acamprosate or topiramate, with Le Foll confirming that these measures do make a difference for patients already. But who knows, perhaps this virtually safer and easier alternative will become the norm in the coming decades as more research is performed. It will be interesting to see how this new method develops.