Researchers Hope 'Virtual Reality' Can Curb Addiction Relapses

PHOTO: Patrick Bordnick, not pictured, created a virtual reality program aimed at helping addicts avoiding tempting situations that could lead to relapse.PlayThe University of Houston
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A new program aims to help addicts by using virtual reality to train them to avoid relapsing.

Researchers at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work have developed a virtual reality simulation designed to help people fighting addiction resist temptation and cravings.

Patrick Bordnick, a Graduate College professor and director of the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab, said the VR tool could help clinicians across the country work with addicts as they try to avoid relapsing.

He said his work started from a desire to understand what could trigger an addict to relapse.

"We wanted to study addiction and things that make people crave substances and relapse," Bordnick explained. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we reconstruct real world environments; put them in the environment to see what makes them want to relapse.’"

Users wear a headset and then communicate with their therapist as they walk through the "party" to talk about moments when they feel intense cravings. The clinician can give them tools to help them deal with such situations where they might feel tempted to use drugs or alcohol again.

"When the person goes into the real world, they’re not in a clinical situation relapsing, they’re in a bar or party," Bordnick said.

After going through a virtual scenario with a clinician, Bordnick said, a patient will, hopefully, have more coping skills and tools to avoid relapsing in the real world. Bordnick said his work has been helped immensely as the cost for virtual reality headsets have gone down exponentially.

A single headset once cost thousands of dollars, Bordnick said.

Headsets today are under $1,000, a price point that allows clinicians to obtain these programs to help patients.

Also, in earlier studies, Bordnick said, smokers who have used the program said they had more confidence that they would be able to avoid cigarettes for longer than those who were solely using a nicotine patch.

"The implications are huge," Bordnick said. "VR is more than a novel toy. It’s got real-world applications."