Virtual Reality and Alcoholism: New Treatment 'Looks' Good

First Posted: Jun 24, 2015 04:43 PM EDT

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimate that 23.5 million persons aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2009. Recovery rates are not stellar for those suffering from alcoholism and/or drug addictions and for many in recovery, relapse periods are exceedingly commonYet every new day brings new hope for those striving forward; this is also the case in medical and technological science.

New findings published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs examine how a group of Korean scientists are treating alcoholism with virtual reality headsets. The study results suggest that a virtual reality treatment may help actually change the way brains process certain stimuli, including alcohol.

The study involved 10 patients with alcohol dependence who were required to attend a week-long detox program, followed by virtual reality sessions using a 3D-television screen, twice a week for five days. During each session, participants went through three virtual realities: one that was meant to relax them; one that was meant to trigger alcohol cravings with other drinkers around them and one that was meant to make drinking seem unpleasant with people around them who were sick from alcohol.

Researchers scanned the individual's brains after 10 full sessions of virtual reality therapy and then again once the study was complete (a total of five weeks). Findings revealed that alcohol-dependent patients' initial brain scans showed increased brain activity in the limbic circuit when compared with the brain scans of individuals who did not have an alcohol issue. Yet scans after the therapy was complete showed that the excess of activity had greatly decreased.

Researchers are hopeful after the study results. However, they added that more research regarding long-term benefits will be needed.

"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," said Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic, Addiction Medicine Services, Ambulatory Care and Structured Treatments at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, who was not involved in the study. "Much more research work needs to be done to be able to determine if ‘virtual reality' treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder."

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