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Jun 24, 2015 05:38 PM EDT

'Virtual Reality' Program Could Treat Alcohol Addiction

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New research suggests that "virtual-reality" therapy could help alcoholics reduce their craving for alcohol.

South Korean researchers found that a form of therapy that puts "patients in situations similar to real life and requires their active participation," could be effective in treating alcoholism, Reuters reported.

"This technology is already popular in the fields of psychology and psychiatry," Doug Hyun Han, senior researcher of the study, said in a statement, adding that virtual-reality therapy has been used to treat phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder, UPI reported.

This form of therapy exposes people to situations that trigger fear and anxiety, in a safe and controlled space. Then, hopefully, they learn to better manage those situations in real life. Less is known about whether virtual reality can help with substance use disorders. But there has been some evidence that it can reduce people's craving for tobacco and alcohol, according to Han.

For the study, researchers recruited 12 patients being treated for alcohol dependence. All went through a week-long detox program, then had 10 sessions of virtual-reality therapy -- done twice a week for five weeks.

The sessions involved three different virtual scenes -- one was meant to relax the participants; another to "trigger alcohol cravings in a situation where other people were drinking," and the third was an "aversive" situation where they "drank a vomit-tasting drink," Reuters reported.

In that aversion scene, patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of people getting sick from too much alcohol.

Before the program, researchers scanned "compared participants' brain metabolism to that in a comparison group of people without alcohol dependence," Reuters reported. They saw that alcohol-dependent patients had a faster metabolism in the brain's limbic circuit -- which indicates a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, like alcohol. After the virtual-reality therapy, however, the picture changed. Patients' revved-up brain metabolism had slowed; this suggests a weakened craving for alcohol.

Based on these results, Han believes the virtual reality program is a promising approach to alcohol dependence. However, larger, long-term studies are still needed to show whether virtual reality ultimately helps patients remain abstinent and avoid relapses.

The findings are detailed in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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