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Virtual Reality as an Addiction Recovery Tool

The virtual reality world is usually thought of as escapist entertainment. But a University of Houston researcher has found computer-generated environments can serve as an effective tool to help recovering addicts.
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Patrick Bordnick, an associate professor at the university’s Graduate College of Social Work, reports that a virtual reality setting can mimic the actual world well enough to intensify the cravings of alcoholics. It can thus serve as a safe place for addicts to practice new behaviors.

Bordnick worked with 40 alcoholics, each of whom put on a virtual-reality helmet for an 18-minute session. They found themselves in a variety of social environments that would trigger the desire to drink, including a bar, a house party and a convenience store where liquor was easily available. To make the settings seem even more real, evocative scents were sprayed into the air, including cigarette smoke.

“What we found was that the VR environments were real enough that their cravings were intensified,” Bordnick told the UH public affairs office. “So now we can develop coping skills, practice them in those very realistic environments until those skills are working tools for them to use in real life.”

His study can be found in the June 2008 edition of the journal Addictive Behaviors.

Last year, Duke University professor Zach Rosenthal reported success with a similar technique, in which recovering crack cocaine addicts were virtually placed into settings that presented temptations to relapse. Bordnick has previously used virtual reality to help people overcome their fear of flying, heights or public speaking.

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