Researchers at the University of Houston are using Virtual Reality (VR) technology to explore innovative methods in the treatment of addictions to drugs.

With the opioid epidemic, more and more people are switching from opioids prescribed to heroin because they can no longer get the prescribed opioids. Because this is a serious problem that has now taken place, we think we might be able to come up with innovative approaches to treatment that might give people different choices, when they decide to take care, “said Micki Washburn, a research scientist at the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Laboratory .

When people with addiction participate in this program, they install virtual reality headsets and navigate through various scenarios. “This is a completely immersive environment based on their unique drug use environment,” Washburn explained. “The location can be at a house party, in a private house or in a club. For alcoholism, you can use bar simulations. “For heroin users, the details might include an open pizza box or spoon and a shot on a table designed to trigger the desire to consume heroin.

“We use exposure to whatever substances they use. The team can carry out physiological monitoring of their responses to see if the desire is really triggered, “Washburn said. At the same time, participants can learn skills to overcome their addiction.

“Basically, what we are doing is expanding exposure therapy for a variety of psychological disorders,” Washburn said. “As therapists, we know that providing a virtual environment that is as close to the user’s real environment as possible allows us to teach them to withstand uncomfortable feelings that trigger substance use.”

Before the availability of virtual reality addiction treatment in VR laboratories, people came to receive exposure therapy in traditional office settings. “We may have shown them videos or pictures or even medical supplies to try to trigger desire in the office and then teach them the skills that help them through this addiction, but the efficacy of that approach is far more limited.”

Is Treatment for Virtual Reality Addiction Realistic?

How detailed can virtual reality replicate the real world? The more immersive the environment, the more useful its function as a therapeutic tool. Is the music in the background appropriate? Is the smell smelled realistic? Do people talk and look as expected by patients?

“Initially, VR used all white avatars, which is not what you see in urban environments like Houston. We continue to adjust the program to make the environment as realistic as possible, “Washburn said. “In the end, objects in the virtual environment can become touchable, with patients being able to touch objects such as drug-giving devices without actually using prohibited substances in them.”

Virtual reality addiction treatment training is not intended to replace comprehensive addiction treatment, rather than adding tools to complement care.

“Desire is partly physiological and partly psychological,” Washburn said. “Our virtual reality setup will not be able to extinguish physiological aspects, but we hope to enable patients to restrain their psychological desires. And the results can certainly not be instant because it requires a process. For some people, this therapeutic approach can be contraindicated, for example, for people who experience psychotic episodes. ”

For now, VR therapy at the University of Houston is experimental. But Washburn hopes that eventually it will become part of the treatment program if the team can demonstrate the efficacy of the approach. “This will be a great additional treatment for people who are reluctant to seek hospitalization or can be part of an inpatient care program”.

The hope is that people with addiction will be able to learn how to check their desires and manage them properly in controlled virtual reality scenarios, so when desires arise in their real environment they have the choice not to give up on the urge to use them.

Of course, learning to hold back desire is only part of recovery, and is an important thing to master. Addiction is a complex disease that requires treatment at various levels over a long period of time. A comprehensive treatment approach at Lakeview Health aims to address not only substance abuse, but also the underlying causes.