The future is here! Virtual reality technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. It has revolutionized the way we play video games, treat diseases, predict weather, and design technology. One of its most recent applications is in the realm of psychology, where it has become a powerful therapeutic tool for individuals with anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder. So, the question remains: can it be used to help one of the most prevalent and problematic mental disorders, drug or alcohol addiction? Researchers are discovering how virtual reality can help people defeat their dependencies. 

Scientific American describes virtual reality therapy (also known as VRT) as:

[Using] specially programmed computers, visual immersion devices and artificially created environments give the patient a simulated experience that can be used to diagnose and treat psychological conditions that cause patients difficulty…

In VR-based therapies, the virtual world is a means of providing artificial, controlled stimuli in the context of treatment, and with a therapist able to monitor the patient's reaction… 

VR-based treatment may involve adjusting the virtual environment, such as, for example, adding controlled intensity smells or adding and adjusting vibrations, in addition to allowing the clinician to determine the triggers and triggering levels for each patient's reaction.

Immersion therapy involves placing a patient in the middle of their triggers, while in a safe space, to help the individual cope with their emotions in the real world.

Although virtual reality does carry with it some risks—treatment would involve exposing patients to their triggers in a simulated yet immersive environment—research groups are learning what VRT for addiction would look like and the possibilities it holds. One group of researchers at the University of Houston are building virtual worlds that mimic the real one; the team has even discovered a way to recreate smells someone would experience around drugs (like marijuana, for example). Some of the scenarios they’ve created include an office courtyard where smoking is occurring on a lunch break and a party where drugs are being used.

The UH researchers, headed by Dr. Patrick Bordnick, are beginning to branch out to treating other serious drug addictions, specifically heroin dependency. They are researching rituals connected to this substance to help recreate an environment that is as real as possible. Bordnick and his team would eventually like to transform technology for cell phones so people can work on their avoidance therapy when they’re alone.

In 2015, researchers at Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea studied twelve people who were being treated for alcohol addiction. The researchers scanned patients’ brains to study their metabolism, then put them through a seven-day detox and exposed them to VRT twice a week for five weeks. During the VRT sessions, the patients experienced three kinds of scenes which escalated their exposure to alcohol: a relaxing scenario, a restaurant which served alcohol and included drinking patrons, and an “aversive” scenario wherein participants were surrounded by the smells, sights, and sounds of people being sick from overconsumption. 

Past research has shown that individuals who are dependent on alcohol have a higher metabolism in their brain’s limbic circuit than people who aren't dependent. The limbic circuit controls a person's sensitivity to stimuli. In the study, researchers found that patients who had undergone VRT to treat their dependency issues showed a slower metabolism in the limbic circuit, indicating that their cravings for alcohol had diminished.

According to head researcher Doug Hyun Han, M.D., Ph.D., the VRT approach to alcohol dependency treatment shows promise. Not only does it mimic real life situations, but it can also be tailored to each individual’s treatment. Han cautions, however, that much more research is needed in order to perfect the VRT technique.