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A South Korean pilot study suggests that using virtual reality therapy (VRT) may help to reduce alcohol cravings in people with alcohol-use disorder (AUD).

The study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, tested VRT on a group of twelve human subjects with AUD. VRT is sometimes used to treat phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder. The technique works by exposing people to fear and anxiety-provoking situations in a safe, virtual environment, during which it is possible to teach them how to manage these feelings.  The newly learned coping skills can then be used in similar real life situations.

In this study, looking at the effect of virtual reality therapy in treating alcohol dependence, the subjects went through a week-long detox program, then had ten sessions (twice a week for five weeks) of VRT.

The participants were exposed to three different virtual scenarios: the first was a relaxing environment; the second, meant to trigger alcohol cravings, was a high-risk situation in a restaurant where other patrons were drinking; the third was an aversive scenario, intended to make drinking seem unpleasant, where the participants were surrounded by the sounds, sights and smells of people getting sick from drinking too much alcohol. The participants also drank a vomit-tasting drink during the aversion scene.

Prior to the therapy, positron emission tomography (PET) and computerized tomography (CT) brain scans assessing the participants’ brain metabolism were obtained. The participants with alcohol dependence were shown to have a faster limbic system metabolism than healthy controls, indicating a heightened sensitivity to stimuli like alcohol.  Scans were done again after therapy and showed a marked difference.  Participants who did VRT showed a decrease in brain metabolic activity and their alcohol craving was reduced after the aversive scenario, senior researcher Doug Hyun Han, M.D., Ph.D., of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, told Reuters Health.

While this small study is encouraging, larger studies are needed to determine whether virtual reality therapy can help alcoholics to stop drinking and avoid relapses.

“Although this pilot study seems to indicate that virtual reality may produce some changes in brain metabolism, this is not yet studied as a treatment approach,” Dr. Bernard Le Foll, head of the Alcohol Research and Treatment Clinic, Addiction Medicine Services, Ambulatory Care and Structured Treatments at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada said in an email to Reuters Health.  Le Foll, who was not involved with the study, noted: “Much more research work needs to be done to be able to determine if ‘virtual reality’ treatment will have a place in the treatment of alcohol use disorder.”