Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are already being explored within the medical profession, as VRFocus has previously reported. Now researchers are trying VR therapy to help people with alcohol dependance reduce their cravings.
According to VR Technology News, the findings, published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, come from a small study of just 10 patients. But researchers said they are optimistic about the potential for virtual reality as a therapy for alcohol use disorders.
Senior researcher Doug Hyun Han, M.D., Ph.D., of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea, says: “This technology is already popular in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.”
His team recruited 12 patients being treated for alcohol dependence for the new study. All the patients went through a week-long detox program, then had 10 sessions of virtual-reality therapy, done twice a week for five weeks.
Each of the 10 sessions involved three different virtual scenes, one in a relaxing environment; another in a ‘high-risk’ situation in which the patients were in a restaurant where other people were drinking and a third, ‘aversive,’ situation, where patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from too much alcohol.
To check the before and after effects of the study, all of the patients underwent positron emission tomography (PET) and computerized tomography (CT) brain scans, prior to the study starting, which allowed the researchers to study the patients’ brain metabolism. The brain scans showed that compared with a group of healthy people, the alcohol-dependent patients had a faster metabolism in the brain’s limbic circuit, which indicates a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, like alcohol. After the VR therapy, however, the picture changed. Patients’ faster brain metabolism had slowed. Doug Hyun Han said this suggested a reduced craving for alcohol.
Longer term studies are needed as this was only a small trial but Han does say it shows ‘a promising approach.
VRFocus will be keeping up to date on VR in medicine and report any further announcements.