A Virtual Reality to Curb Your Heroin Cravings

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Researchers from the University of Houston are using virtual reality to tackle real-life heroin addictions.

Patrick Bordnick founded and continues to direct the lab at the university’s Graduate School of Social Work. Bordnick and his team built hyper-realistic virtual worlds, right down to the smells, which mimic familiar scenarios that often trigger cravings for heroin and other drugs like alcohol and marijuana. When patients strap on the virtual headset, they are brought into the environment that makes them crave their drug of choice, such as a party, and then learn ways to remove themselves from the situation.

Bordnick and his team built hyper-realistic virtual worlds, right down to the smells, which mimic familiar scenarios that often trigger cravings for heroin and other drugs like alcohol and marijuana.

How Does the Virtual Reality Work?

To address heroin addiction in the virtual world, Bordnick had real-life users act out their injection rituals while wearing motion capture suits so they could be digitized. A separate scent machine is also used to further bring the patient into the environment and trigger their cravings. “If there’s people eating pizza in a restaurant, you smell pizza. And marijuana, obviously,” said Bordnick. “We have raw marijuana smell, marijuana smoke, incense, anything that’s associated with the drug. If you go outdoors, we have a pine, or outdoorsy, scent.”

The new technique has yielded great results for addictions like nicotine and pot, but Bordnick believes using virtual reality to address heavier addictions like heroin is the next step. Although roleplaying scenarios have been a common part of relapse therapy for many years, the interactive virtual worlds bring this method to new levels.

Bordnick has gone to great efforts to ensure that specific details, such as the color of a drink or a drug, are identical to what the addict would see in real life. “The drink can’t look like some drink that you’d see in World of Warcraft. An alcohol dependent person knows their drink and what it looks like,” he said. “If it’s not the right color, if it doesn’t look like a real whisky, that’s not going to make that situation applicable to them.”

Bordnick’s goal is to eventually have these virtual worlds available on smartphone applications so they’re more easily accessible for people in need.

Does Virtual Reality Therapy Really Work?

Although there aren’t any statistics on how effective this method is for treating drug addiction, virtual reality therapy has been proven to be useful in treating chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A 2012 study published in the journal Military Medicine worked with 42 combat servicemen diagnosed with PTSD. Out of the 20 who remained in the study, 15 of them no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD after treatment and maintained their improvement three months later.

Additional Reading: THC for PTSD: Marijuana Military Study Approved

Photo Source: istock

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