Treating alcoholism with “virtual” reality

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

A new report out of the Chung-Ang University Hospital in Korea shows that a form of “virtual reality” therapy can help alcoholics reduce their craving for alcoholic beverages. The study that was done was very small and only included 10 patients, but the findings were surprising enough that the researchers are hopeful that this type of therapy could be used for alcohol dependency disorders on a larger scale, especially since this type of therapy is already used in psychiatry and psychology. 

How does virtual reality therapy work?

In a controlled environment, patients are exposed to situations that trigger anxiety and fear. Through a virtual reality, they begin learning how to manage situations better in real life. In this study, patients undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction were gathered and underwent 10 sessions of virtual reality therapy over a 5 week time period. They were shown three virtual scenes – one in a relaxing setting, another in a high-risk situation (a restaurant where alcohol was served and people were drinking) and the last one was a situation where patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from drinking too much. Before the study began, all of the patients had CT brain scans done, so researchers documented the patient’s brain metabolism. Results showed that the alcohol-dependent patients had a faster metabolism in the brain's limbic circuit than those scans of healthy people. This shows an intensified sensitivity to stimuli, like alcohol.  But after the patients received the virtual-reality therapy, the picture changed. Patients' revved-up brain metabolism had slowed — which researchers believe shows a reduction in alcohol craving. (1)

Long term studies are still needed to see if this is still an effective method to treating alcohol dependency, but this early study and report leaves researchers optimistic about the possibilities. Technology, when used in innovative ways like this, can be incredibly beneficial to understanding how the brain works and how to treat specific diseases or addictions to alcohol or other substances. 

If you or someone you know is living with addiction – whether it is substance abuse, video game use or technology as a whole – seek help immediately. 

1. “Virtual reality’ therapy could treat alcoholism.” The Times of India. June 26, 2015. Accessed online July 5, 2015.