A decade ago, when Mark Zachary Rosenthal, present associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences of Duke University set out to use virtual reality (VR) in helping drug addicts to overcome their cravings, he put them in a simulated crack house.

Rosenthal believes cravings is a learned behavior and people can unlearn them by assuming tactics to subside the feeling. In the past, addicts are placed in the lab, being shown real-life triggers (i.e., drug, alcohol bottle or cigarettes) and taught to confront them. Known as cue reactivity, effectiveness of such addiction treatment is limited because patients are unable to transfer the coping mechanism from the lab to real life.

The hyper-realistic experiences created by VR have managed to close the gap between the lab and reality. Rosenthal regards VR cue reactivity treatment as a complementary method to traditional counseling, medication and rehab groups. It is especially useful for addicts who do not respond well to standard protocols.

Relapse prevention

A decade later, the focus of using VR to combat addiction has moved from behavioral change to the creation of an inclusive environment to prevent relapse. This is what Interventionville, the latest VR app aims to achieve, by creating a platform for patients with similar conditions to share their stories and find comfort in one another, so that even the introverts are able to seek adequate support without the fear of being judged.

Others like Noah Robinson, PhD candidate from Vanderbilt University are relying on VRChat, a community based and open source VR platform which permits anyone to create and upload VR content, to create the kind of social support common amongst social media channels, so that patients are aware that they are not going for the VR treatment on their own, but they will be interacting with different users during their recovery.

To fight fire with fire

As VR treatment becomes more systematic, the present challenge perhaps will be are addicts susceptible to VR addiction? Some technologies like mobile game applications are designed to be addictive and prolong usage has gradually found to be harmful for our mental well-being.  It will be extremely tragic to see patients being salvaged from a form of addiction but plunged into another soon after.

Thus far, there isn’t any study to address that, we are not even sure if prolong use of VR will permanently rewires our brains like the way drugs and alcohol do. However, since VR treatment is usually monitored by medical professionals, chances are rather low.

Moreover, addiction is developed based on the fidelity of an experience and the kind of emotions and dependence which the users had fostered. If in the most unfortunate case that the patients get addicted to VR, it means that the issues inducing the addiction haven’t been resolved and in most cases, it will be considered as an relapse.

It’s becoming clear VR’s values in the treatment of addition but like all forms of medicines, it cannot and does not work alone. As its limits continue to be explored, reflecting on what it can or cannot do is not at all dystopic.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.