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Virtual Reality Therapy Tested As A Treatment For Alcoholism

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One of the major pitfalls of virtual reality headsets is their tendency to make people nauseous. But for a group of scientists in Korea, effectively making people nauseous using virtual reality has an important purpose - treating alcoholism.

The small study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, contained only 12 patients, but the results suggest that the virtual reality treatment they underwent actually changed the way their brains process stimuli such as alcohol.

All of the patients recruited for the study were being treated for alcohol dependence. After they had all completed a weeklong detox program, the researchers took initial scans of their brains using positron emission tomography (PET) and computerized tomography (CT). Then, they strapped a virtual reality headset on them and showed them three different virtual scenes.

One scene showed a relaxing environment, one surrounded the patients with other people drinking at a restaurant to mimic a "high-risk" situation, and the last subjected the patients to an "aversive" situation. The aversive situation exposed the patients to the least-attractive part of alcohol, the effects of drinking too much. Patients watched and heard people get sick from alcohol, and even had to endure the smell of vomit.

The patients went through 10 sessions of this virtual reality therapy over the course of five weeks. Once they completed the full round of virtual reality therapy, the researchers scanned their brains again. The alcohol-dependent patients' initial brain scans had shown increased activity in the brain's limbic circuit compared with the brain scans of healthy people, an indication of high sensitivity to stimuli like alcohol. But the post-virtual reality therapy scans showed that this excess of activity was diminished.

This change in brain activity suggests that the therapy decreased the patients' alcohol cravings, senior study author Doug Hyan Han said in a statement.

The researcher are "optimistic" about the therapy's potential for treating alcoholism, according to a statement. But this was a very small preliminary study, so it's too early to say whether you can justify dropping over a grand on Oculus Rift as a medical expenditure for your alcohol problems.

Photo: Nan Palmero | Flickr

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