PhotoTherapy involving the use of virtual-reality software may help people with alcohol dependence. A new study suggests that the treatment can slow a patient’s brain metabolism, which can diminish their cravings for alcohol.

Virtual-reality therapy has been used in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to treat many different disorders, including phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It allows researchers and doctors to expose people to the things that trigger their fears and anxiety while ensuring they are in a safe and controlled setting.

Senior researcher Dong Hyun Han and his team conducted the study with the help of 12 patients who were being treated for alcohol dependence. After detoxing for a week, each patient took part in 10 sessions of virtual reality therapy.

Changing brain chemistry

The sessions placed each patient in three virtual situations. The first was a relaxing environment with no stressors. The second was a “high-risk situation”, where patients were placed in a restaurant where other people were drinking. The third was an “aversive situation”, where patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of people getting sick from drinking too much.

Although measurable outcomes are hard to measure in this kind of study, researchers were able to observe what the treatment did to the patients’ brain chemistry. Before beginning the sessions, Han and his team took brain scans of the patients and noted that each had a faster metabolism in the brain’s limbic circuit. Having a faster brain metabolism makes a person more sensitive to stimuli, like alcohol.

After the virtual-reality therapy sessions were complete, doctors scanned the patients again and noticed that their brain metabolisms had slowed. Han suggests that this shows a reduced craving for alcohol.

Better manage real-life situations

Han and his team believe that this therapy is a promising approach to treating alcohol dependence. It puts patients in realistic situations and makes them actively participate in the process. The researchers hope that being exposed to triggers in sessions will help patients better manage situations that may occur in real life.  

Although it has not been proven, virtual-reality therapy may be useful in treating substance abuse disorders as well. Longer-term studies are still needed, however, to determine if the treatments can help patients remain abstinent and avoid relapses.

The full study has been published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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