South Korea has discovered a ‘virtual therapy’ that might be able to treat alcohol addicts. A study was conducted with only 10 patients with alcohol addiction, but senior researcher Dr. Doug Hyun Han of Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul and colleagues, feel that the link might be promising, in part because it puts patients in situations similar to real life and requires their active participation.
During the study the patients first were subjected to a week-long detox, after that they were exposed to virtual reality sessions using 3D screens twice a week for total of five weeks.
The reality sessions varied in theme, first session was meant to relax the, the second was meant put expose them to situations where other people were drinking to trigger their alcohol cravings. The last session was meant to make alcohol seem unpleasant, by transporting participants to a room where people were getting sick from alcohol. The participants also drank a vomit-tasting drink during the aversion simulation.
Areas of the brain thought to be sensitive to alcohol showed changes after repeated exposure to the three different virtual realities, researchers found.
The participant’s brain metabolisms were compared, before the study began, to people who were not dependent on alcohol. The alcohol-dependent group had more metabolic activity in the limbic system of the brain, which is tied to emotions and behavior.
After five weeks of therapy, brain scans showed decreased metabolic activity in this area for the alcohol-dependent participants, according to a report in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
On subjective and objective measures, alcohol craving was reduced after the aversive scene, Han told Reuters Health.
He added that there will need to be more research into the long-term results of virtual reality therapy, and testing whether this method may work for other kinds of addiction.
“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,” said 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.
“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,” in western countries, he told Reuters Health by email.
As of right now the recommended treatment for alcoholism is behavioral therapy combined with pharmaceuticals like naltrexone, acamprosate or topiramate.