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Video: Can Virtual Reality Help You “Choose Not to Use”?


Hyper-realistic virtual situations—like a pizza party for marijuana users—are meant to trigger cravings, in order to help train recovering addicts to avoid relapse IRL.

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Virtual reality technology is being used, apparently with some success, to treat people with mental illness and veterans with PTSD. Its potential therapeutic application is now being extended to people with substance use disorder who need help resisting relapse.

At the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work, researchers are creating computer-simulated scenarios intended to trigger cravings in the person using the “treatment,” presenting them with the opportunity, as Vice’s Motherboard reports, “to choose not to use.”

Patrick Bordnick, who describes himself on the University of Huston’s website as “a Behavioral Scientist, Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Visionary, Researcher, Practical Dreamer, artist and photographer,” founded the Virtual Reality Clinical Lab and is its director. After initial experiments with people who quit smoking showed some beneficial effects, grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse have enabled him to enlarge the scope of the virtual reality experiment to alcohol, marijuana and, most recently, heroin.

Relapse prevention therapy is often done with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A person’s specific high-risk situations are identified, analyzed and then enacted—“role-played”—with a therapist. If and when the skit triggers a craving in the person, he or she practices anti-relapse coping strategies—such as mindfulness—to successfully resist the temptation.

Bordnick’s experiments are computerized versions of CBT. As therapy, they sink or swim on their capacity to trigger in the person a craving visceral enough to mobilize a coping response of sufficient power to “teach” the brain relapse prevention. Thus, for Bordnick, the challenge is a technological one.

“We have to make it real,” he tells Motherboard. “The drink can’t look like some drink that you’d see in World of Warcraft. An alcohol dependent person knows their drink and what it looks like. If it’s not the right color, if it doesn’t look like a real whisky, that’s not gonna make that situation applicable to them.” The lab goes to considerable lengths, for example, to simulate an avatar in the act of injecting heroin into a vein.

The technology is impressive almost to the point of intimidation (see diagram above). The person is strapped into a chair on a vibrating platform, with a head-mounted display, including headphones, and attached to a psychophysiology monitor of his or her vital signs. There is also a scent machine to simulate the smells generally associated with the particular scenario—for example, Bordnick said, “raw marijuana smell, marijuana smoke and incense” for pot. Girded in this suit of technological armor, the person rides into battle.

The scenarios—Bordnick calls them “environments”—include a pizza party for the “cannabis environment” and a gas station for the “smoking environment.” You can test the reality of the stoned pizza party in the video below. For other scenarios go here.