Alcohol: virtual reality to cure addiction?
In the field of health, the ideas for applications of virtual reality have multiplied in recent months. The most advanced projects consist of treating certain phobias (fear of emptiness, crowds, spiders, etc.) or post-traumatic stress. And tomorrow, alcoholism? This is the wish of South Korean researchers at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, who have just tested an innovative therapy based on virtual reality on 12 patients treated for severe alcohol dependence. According to their study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the benefits of this treatment were seen after only five weeks.
A therapy that changes the functioning of the brain
THERAPY. For one week, the 12 participants underwent a detox program before testing the new therapy: twice a week for 5 weeks, patients were invited to view three scenarios on 3D screens. The first focused on soothing images, in order to relax them. The second triggered a desire to drink alcohol because it plunged patients into the heart of a restaurant where people consumed alcohol around them. Finally, the third short film was much more anxiety-inducing since it showed the study participants images, sounds and smells of patients who were ill because of excessive alcohol consumption.
Before and after this therapy, all patients were subjected to two medical imaging examinations: positron emission tomography (examination to visualize brain activity) and computed tomography (technique to visualize brain structures). By analyzing the images obtained, the researchers found metabolic changes in the brains of patients before and after the virtual reality sessions: before, their limbic system, considered the seat of emotions and behavior, had a faster metabolism than “healthy” people. This means that patients had an increased sensitivity to stimuli such as alcohol. “But after the sessions, the situation changed: the metabolism of the limbic system had sharply decreased, to the point of joining that of the “healthy” patients, suggesting that their urge to consume alcohol was curbed,” explains Doug Hyun Han, lead author of the study, in a statement.
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A therapy that prevents relapses?
Although tested on a small number of patients, this therapy would hold promise for the treatment of alcohol dependence because “it puts patients in situations similar to those they may face in real life and requires them to be actively involved,” says Doug Hyun Han. In addition, the sessions are designed “tailor-made” for each patient, depending on the severity of their alcohol dependence. It remains to evaluate in the long term whether virtual reality allows patients to remain abstinent and avoid relapses.