Academics & Research

Addiction therapy looks to virtual reality

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The Virtual Reality Lab at the Graduate College of Social Work places addicts in a setting that will present them with temptations to take substances like alcohol. | Courtesy of Patrick Bordnick

The Virtual Reality Lab at the Graduate College of Social Work is making progress in the fight against addiction.

Headed by professor Patrick Bordnick, the lab opened in 2011 as one of the first studies focused on tobacco cessation and is set up to assess and treat craving and dependence on tobacco, marijuana, alcohol and heroin.

“We provide different treatment protocols and aid in relapse prevention,” Bordnick said. “The data indicated that virtual reality skills training leads to coping skills in the real world.”

For each study, the subject is immersed in a virtual world that is tailored to mirror their addiction. Visual and audio components place the subject in a simulated environment, and a therapist monitors the subject’s cravings and vital signs.

Maria Wilson, an assistant to Bordnick during his alcohol dependency study, explained how the process works.

“The participant is in one room, and the therapist monitors and controls the simulation from an adjoining room,” she said.

The therapist can see the subject through a window that connects the two rooms and records data on three different screens. The first monitor tracks physical data such as vital signs, the second gives the researcher a view of what the participant sees and the third controls movement in the simulated environment.

During each 20-minute simulation, the subject encounters a scenario that might trigger a craving. For example, an alcoholic might be confronted with a party scene where their drink of choice is readily available. The avatars can speak to the subject as if the participant was actually at the party. When a craving is triggered, the therapist provides coping skills to the participant that then help the individual be successful in a similar environment in the real world.

“Virtual reality provides a clinical space to teach skills such as avoidance, urge surfing and assertiveness training to prevent relapse,” Bordnick said.


The Virtual Reality Lab in the Graduate College of Social Work opened in 2011 as one of the first studies to focus on tobacco cessation and is set up to assess and treat cravings for and dependence on tobacco, marijuana, alcohol and heroin. | Courtesy of Patrick Bordnick

“(The goal is to) supplement traditional methods with technology.”

As technology becomes more affordable, it is possible that addiction specialists around the world will have access to virtual reality to help patients simulate a real-world scenario, which is not currently possible in a traditional clinical setting.

“Is traditional face-to-face talk therapy applicable to someone (of this generation) who is always plugged in?” Bordnick said.

“Combination therapies with technology are the future.”

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