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Virtual reality may help treat alcoholism

Scans of patients' brains in a small study showed that immersive situational therapy decreased their craving for alcohol.

By
Stephen Feller
Placing alcoholic patients into virtual reality situations which tested their ability not to drink appeared to dampen their craving for alcohol. Photo by Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Placing alcoholic patients into virtual reality situations which tested their ability not to drink appeared to dampen their craving for alcohol. Photo by Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

SEOUL, June 24 (UPI) -- A small study in South Korea has shown that virtual reality representations where alcoholics would be tempted to drink was effective in helping them cope with their addiction.

Based on differences in brain metabolism after the treatment, researchers believe that putting alcoholics in situations similar to real life dampened their craving for alcohol.

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"This technology is already popular in the fields of psychology and psychiatry," Dr. Doug Hyun Han, a senior researcher at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, said in a press release, adding that the technology has been used to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the study, 12 patients at the hospital went through a weeklong detox program and then 10 sessions of virtual reality treatment, which placed them in three scenarios: one in a relaxing environment; one in a "high-risk" situation with people in a restaurant who were drinking; and, finally, one where patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from too much alcohol.

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PET and CT scans of the patients taken before treatment showed the brain metabolism in their limbic circuit - which indicates a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, such as alcohol - to be higher than nonalcoholics. In scans after treatment, brain metabolism had slowed, which Han said suggests the craving for alcohol in the patients had been effected.

Virtual reality has had some success with soldiers returning from Iraq who have PTSD.

Researchers in the alcoholism study said that larger, long-term studies will need to be done to determine if the treatment is actually effective at preventing relapses.

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The study is published in the Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs.

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